40 Killed as terror blasts shake Morocco - East Valley Tribune: News

40 Killed as terror blasts shake Morocco

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Posted: Saturday, May 17, 2003 7:45 am | Updated: 1:22 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

CASABLANCA, Morocco - Suicide attackers set off a string of explosions in the heart of Casablanca, killing at least 40 people at a Jewish community center, the Belgian consulate, a Spanish social club and a major hotel.

The five separate but nearly simultaneous attacks on Friday night injured 60 people and threw the city into chaos. Decapitated bodies and smashed cars littered the streets. Walls were peeled back and some buildings partially leveled. Alone in the wreckage, a woman howled in anguish.

The attacks came just days after U.S. officials warned that al-Qaida was planning a worldwide series of terrorist attacks.

The assailants carried out the carnage with precision, witnesses said. Three of them entered the restaurant in the Casa de Espana social club after slitting the security guard's throat with a large knife, Lamia Haffi, an employee, told Spanish National Radio.

Then two of them detonated explosives, she said.

"I heard the bombs and then everything started burning," Rafael Bermudez, the owner of social club, told the radio station. "Everyone was on the ground and there was blood everywhere. It was horrible."

No one immediately blamed al-Qaida for the Morocco attacks, but they had many of the group's hallmarks: multiple, simultaneous strikes; suicide assailants; and lightly defended targets.

"They were terrorists, suicide bombers," Interior Minister Mustapha Sahel told reporters. "These are the well-known signatures of international terrorists."

The blasts damaged a Jewish community center and cemetery, the Belgian consulate, the Spanish restaurant and the Hotel Safir.

Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Didier Seeuws told the Belgian news agency Belga that the Belgian consulate was heavily damaged. He said two policemen outside the building were killed and a security guard was hospitalized.

A diplomatic source speaking on condition of anonymity said at least one Spanish citizen was among the dead, but that could not be officially confirmed.

The motive for the bombings was unclear, but Spain supported the United States in the war against Iraq. Belgium opposed the war, but hosts the headquarters of NATO and the European Union.

In Morocco, municipal elections were delayed in April over concerns of growing Muslim fundamentalism.

Sahel said that his country would not be intimidated.

"The Kingdom of Morocco will never surrender to terrorists and will not allow anyone to disturb its security," he told reporters.

A U.S. counterterrorism official in Washington said late Friday there were no immediate claims of responsibility or any clear indication of who conducted the bombings.

However, al-Qaida involvement was plausible, and the group maintains a presence in Morocco, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official Moroccan news agency MAP reported that three suspects, all Moroccans, were apprehended, without elaborating. The agency also said that 10 of the dead were attackers.

The blasts appeared to take place almost simultaneously just after 9 p.m., officials said. Joanne Moore, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman in Washington, said no U.S. government offices were targeted.

Foreign Minister Louis Michel sent a message of condolences to the Moroccan government denouncing all forms of terrorism.

The blasts came just four days after a series of suicide bombings in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, killed 34 people at three foreigners' housing compounds.

Morocco has been a staunch U.S. ally, but 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.

King Mohammed VI, who was scheduled to travel to the bomb site in Casablanca, had expressed concern the war could rouse the country's Islamic fundamentalist movement.

Casablanca lies 200 miles southwest of Spain on North Africa's Atlantic coast. It is the largest city in Morocco with 3.5 million people.

Three Saudis were arrested in Casablanca last year for leading an al-Qaida plot to attack U.S. and British warships in the Straits of Gibraltar. The three were given 10-year prison sentences in February by a Moroccan court.

U.S. counterterrorism officials on Thursday had warned of a coordinated effort by Osama bin Laden's network to hit targets worldwide. They cited the Saudi bombings as well as threats in Africa and Asia.

U.S. and British authorities had warned of threats in East Africa, particularly Kenya, and in southeast Asia, especially 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.

Foreign leaders expressed outrage over Friday's attacks. A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said they showed the world should redouble its anti-terrorism efforts.

"Such events can only reinforce our common determination to battle without pause against international terrorism," French President Jacques Chirac said in a written statement.

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