| A television grab shows the damaged interior of Hotel Safir after the blast. (Reuters)
Casablanca (Morocco), May 17 (Reuters): Suicide bombers killed 41 people in Casablanca, Morocco’s biggest city, hours after the US said the al Qaida was ready to strike again after Monday’s massacre in Riyadh.
A Jewish centre and a Spanish club were among the targets of Friday night’s attack in Morocco, which, like Saudi Arabia, has close ties with the US.
“International terrorism struck Casablanca tonight,” Moroccan interior minister Al Mustapha Sahel was quoted as saying.
Suicide bombers carried out five attacks and as many as 10 of the dead may have been assailants, Sahel said, adding that 41 people were killed and 65 wounded.
The blasts came hours after US President George W. Bush warned of “killers on the loose” as terror alerts spread around the world after the bombings in the Saudi capital. “It is certainly a wake-up call to many that the war on terror continues,” he said.
Morocco did not figure on the long list of countries the US and Britain had issued terror warnings about this week.
On Saturday, Bush warned in a radio address of possible new attacks from al Qaida, which he said was weakened but “not idle” after US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As with the Riyadh assault, Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida was the top suspect. A US official said it was plausible to suggest that al Qaida, which Washington blames for the September 11, 2001 suicide hijackings, was behind the latest strike.
The Riyadh bombings that killed 34 people, including eight Americans, were the first major attack on US and Western interests abroad since the Iraq war. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had warned that the war would produce “one hundred new bin Ladens”.
Morocco and Saudi Arabia — bin Laden’s birthplace — were among Muslim countries listed as “most eligible for liberation” in a tape said to have been made by the al Qaida leader and broadcast in February.
Some of the Casablanca targets had Jewish connections and one was linked to Spain, which strongly backed the war on Iraq.
Sahel said the Casablanca bombers struck the Hotel Safir in the heart of the old city, a Jewish community centre, a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant and the Casa de Espana social club.
A bomb seemingly destined for an old Jewish cemetery appeared to have gone off early. Local journalists said the bulk of the dead were at the club, popular with Spanish business people and diplomats.
“The doorman, poor thing, they cut his head off, like this, with a big knife...then they left one, two bombs. And there were Spaniards. I saw the doorman's chair — it was covered in blood,” the secretary of the Casa de Espana Spanish social club told Spain’s state radio. “And they left a big knife. Then inside there was, I don’t know, flesh — flesh all over the place.”
Hotel Farah security chief said two assailants burst in and were stopped by the staff. “One of them stabbed one of my agents with a knife, the other agent tried to get hold of the second attacker and that’s when he blew himself up.”
Sahel was quoted as saying that three Moroccans had been arrested, among them one suspected of attempting a suicide bombing.
In recent days, the US and Britain had issued warnings of possible attacks in Kenya and other African countries but not Morocco, suggesting the choice of that country as a target had caught Western intelligence by surprise.
A US intelligence official said “chatter” among terror suspects picked up by US eavesdropping appeared to be “more consistent, more repetitive” about another attack than it was before the Saudi bombings.
The latest bombings shattered Morocco’s image of a relatively stable country and safe tourist destination. Rabat and Washington are currently negotiating a free trade agreement.
Casablanca, on the Atlantic coast about 95 km southwest of the capital Rabat, has an official population of three million but may sprawl to nearly double that, residents say.
Moroccans had been enjoying a holiday weekend and were still celebrating last week’s birth of King Mohammed’s son and heir.