- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

RABAT, Morocco — Terrorists exploded four bombs in the coastal city of Casablanca last night, killing at least 24 persons and damaging the Belgian Consulate, a synagogue and a Spanish restaurant, officials said.

Agence France-Presse quoted the Interior Ministry as saying there were also about 60 injured.

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 Moroccan news agency, MAP, reported that three suspects were apprehended, without elaborating.

“International terrorism has struck Casablanca tonight,” Interior Minister Mustapha Sahel said.

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 Qaeda 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 24 persons, the Interior Ministry 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, Mr. Sahel said 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 Rabat, was a scene of pandemonium, with police and rescue workers rushing to the sites, and nightclubs 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 of a coordinated effort by al Qaeda 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 Farah 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 antiwar protests against the Iraq war, including one in Rabat in March that drew 200,000 people.

Morocco postponed municipal elections in April by several months, 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 kingdom, which enjoys close ties to the United States, have predicted that Muslim fundamentalist parties will make massive gains.

The suicide blasts Monday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, killed 34 persons at three foreigners’ housing compounds.

Three Saudis were arrested in Casablanca last year for leading an al Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 terrorist attack might occur in the western Saudi city of Jidda.

Al Qaeda has suffered serious blows in recent months, including the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, suspected of being the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. But senior al Qaeda 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 persons, mostly foreign tourists. The blast has been linked to al Qaeda.

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