Four Explosions Rock Casablanca, Killing at Least 20 People, Officials Say
The Associated Press
The Boston Globe
Saturday 17 May 2003
RABAT, Morocco - Terrorists exploded four bombs in the coastal city of Casablanca late Friday, killing at least 20 people and damaging the Belgian consulate, a synagogue and a Spanish restaurant, officials said.
At least three of the blasts were from car bombs, and the fourth appeared to be detonated by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt, according to security officials in this North African nation.
The official news agency MAP reported that three suspects were apprehended, without elaborating.
"International terrorism has struck Casablanca tonight," Interior Minister Mustapha Sahel said in a statement carried by the official Moroccan news agency MAP.
The attacks came just days after deadly terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia, prompting cities across the globe to brace for the possibility of attacks by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network, though it was not immediately known who was behind the Casablanca bombings.
The blasts appeared to take place almost simultaneously just after 9 p.m., killing at least 20 people and leaving several others injured, the Interior Ministry said. The explosions damaged the Belgian consulate, a Spanish restaurant and a synagogue, officials said. There were burnt-out vehicles outside some of the sites.
Two policemen outside the heavily damaged consulate were killed and a security guard was hospitalized, Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Didier Seeuws told the Belgian news agency Belga.
In his statement, Sahel said that the government had set up crisis teams in Rabat, the capital, and Casablanca.
"The situation is totally under control and all steps have been taken throughout the territory to ensure order, calm and security in the face of this criminal enterprise," he said.
Joanne Moore, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman in Washington, said no U.S. government facility was targeted.
The Atlantic coastal city, Morocco's economic heart about 60 miles southwest of the capital of Rabat, was a scene of pandemonium, with police and rescue workers rushing to the sites and night clubs and restaurants shutting down almost immediately.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel sent a message of condolence to the Moroccan government denouncing all forms of terrorism.
U.S. counterterrorism officials in Washington had warned Friday of a coordinated effort by al-Qaida to strike lightly defended targets worldwide, citing the bombings earlier this week in Saudi Arabia as well as threats in Africa and Asia.
Abdullah ben Ali, a correspondent in Casablanca for the Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiya, said he witnessed one explosion at the "Casa Espana" nightclub, frequented mainly by Spaniards, and at the Hotel Safir, suggesting Western targets.
Morocco, a French-speaking country, has a population of about 30 million, mostly Sunni Muslim people with small Christian and Jewish communities. Both Belgium and Spain have large Moroccan immigrant populations.
Morocco, considered a moderate Arab nation, has been a staunch U.S. ally. But it expressed regret that a peaceful solution could not be found in the Iraq crisis.
The Moroccan public turned out in large numbers for anti-war protests against the Iraq war, including one in the capital, Rabat, in March that drew 200,000 people.
Morocco postponed municipal elections in April by several months -- a move widely seen as an effort to thwart the rise of Muslim fundamentalist parties. Communications Minister Nabil Benabdallah said the decision to delay the vote from June to September came at the behest of the "ruling political parties."
Analysts in this moderate Muslim North African kingdom, which enjoys close ties to the United States, have predicted that Muslim fundamentalist parties will make massive gains.
Monday's suicide blasts in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, killed 34 people at three foreigners' housing compounds.
Three Saudis were arrested in Casablanca last year for leading an al-Qaida plot to attack U.S. and British warships. The three were given 10-year prison sentences in February by a Moroccan court. The Saudis are also accused of having planned to blow up a cafe in Marrakech, a major tourist destination, and attack tourist buses in Morocco.
All three Saudis admitted under interrogation that they had been trained in the use of weapons and explosives at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
U.S. and British authorities had warned of threats in East Africa, particularly Kenya, and in southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia. U.S. officials also received an unconfirmed report that a possible terrorist attack may occur in the western Saudi city of Jiddah.
Al-Qaida has suffered serious blows in recent months, including the capture of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But senior al-Qaida leaders were thought to be hiding in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, U.S. officials said.
In another North African country, an explosion on April 11, 2002, tore apart sections of a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, killing 21 people, mostly foreign tourists. The blast has been linked to al-Qaida.