Bombs killed 30 people in Algeria’s capital on Wednesday, raising fears that political bloodletting had returned to the north African oil exporter.
One of the blasts, believed to be a suicide bombing, ripped part of the facade off the prime minister’s headquarters in the centre of Algiers. A second bomb hit Bab Ezzouar on its eastern outskirts, the official APS news agency said.
Residents said it was the first time since the 1990s that a powerful bomb had targeted the centre of the Mediterranean city where police had stepped up security following a rise in attacks by suspected Islamist insurgents in the countryside.
Hospital sources put the toll from the two bombings at 30. Earlier, the official APS news agency put the toll at 17 dead with 82 wounded.
The main guerrilla group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), adopted a new name in January and deepened its ties to Al-Qaeda.
The group, now called the Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb, has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly bombings targeting security forces and foreigners, and Algerian troops and militants have clashed.
No one has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks. Leila Aissaoui, 25, stood crying near the government palace. "I thought explosions in Algiers were over," she said. "I made a big mistake and I can’t accept this."
Algeria descended into violence in 1992 after the then military-backed authorities scrapped a parliamentary election that an Islamist political party was set to win. Up to 200,000 people were killed in the ensuing bloodshed.
That violence subsided in recent years following several amnesties for insurgents but rumbles on in mountains east of Algiers.
The blast at the prime minister’s headquarters gouged a gaping hole in the six-storey building, shattering windows and showering rubble on to cars for blocks around. Police sources said the attack was a suicide bombing.
Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who was not harmed, called the attack a "criminal and cowardly act of terrorism".
"At first I thought it was an earthquake," said lawyer Tahar bin Taleb. "My wife called me a few moments later crying and shouting. I ran home to find all the mirrors and windows in the house were shattered."
Dozens of ambulances converged on the upscale residential neighbourhood as people poured on to the streets and survivors were led from the building.
"I am horrified and indignant after the attacks which have just struck Algiers," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in a statement. "I convey my sincerest condolences to the victims’ families and assure the Algerian authorities of our full solidarity in their fight against terrorism." France ruled Algeria before independence in 1962.
One Algerian analyst said the operation appeared to be a reply to stepped-up attacks by the army on Islamist insurgents in the Bejaia region in mountains east of Algiers.
"This is a violent reaction to Bejaia operation where important leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb are surrounded," said security expert Anis Rahmani.