Twin bomb blasts kill 62 in Algiers, blamed on Al-Qaeda

( AFP ) - Twin car bombings blamed on Al-Qaeda rocked Algiers on Tuesday, killing at least 62 people, devastating a UN office and blowing apart a bus packed with students, hospital and security sources said.

Rescuers aided by sniffer dogs struggled to free victims from the rubble, and by Tuesday evening five people had been pulled alive from the ruins of the devastated UN office, Algerian television reported.

The United Nations said at least five of its staff were killed and 14 were missing after the attack at the UN refugee agency building where families quickly gathered to find out whether their relatives had survived.

One woman shouted and slumped toward the ground after hearing of the death of her son, and authorities quickly evacuated her.

The interior ministry put the confirmed death toll from the two blasts at 26, with 177 people injured, though the hospital sources said there were at least 62 fatalities.

Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem said earlier on television that 24 people had perished and insisted he was not trying to hide the toll.

"The official toll that we have given is the real toll. We have nothing to hide and every drop of Algerian blood counts for us," he said.

It was the latest of a series of bombings in the capital and other major Algerian cities this year that have killed scores.

Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the past attacks and Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni blamed the Osama bin Laden followers for the new blasts.

"We are sure that it is the work of the GSPC," he said, using the old acronym for the group now known as Al-Qaeda's Branch in the Islamic Maghreb.

He said a suicide bomber triggered the explosion which ripped through the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and neighbouring UN Development Programme (UNDP) and other agencies. The front of the building had collapsed.

Destruction could also be seen in the area surrounding the other car bomb attack, which occurred minutes earlier outside of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Council building.

"It was like an earthquake," said Ameur Rekhaila, a lawyer who was on the second floor of the Constitutional Council when the bomb went off.

In New York, UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe said at least five UN staff were killed and 14 others were missing after the attacks.

The chief of the UN's refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, told BBC television: "I have no doubt the UN was targetted."

The full force of the first bomb blew apart a bus packed with university students as it passed the Supreme Court headed for a nearby law faculty.

Security sources said most of the dead and injured from this attack were students.

The blast left a crater several metres (feet) wide and badly damaged the Constitutional Council building which was only recently inaugurated by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The UN office is in the Hydra district where the finance and energy ministries and several diplomatic residences are also located.

Security forces put up road blocks around the city.

"These are crimes which target innocents. Students, schoolchildren are among the victims," prime minister Belkhadem said at a hospital where injured were being treated.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon led international outrage over the attacks. He condemned "in the strongest possible terms the terrorist attacks in Algiers", his office said in a statement.

The United States called them acts of "senseless violence".

"We condemn this attack on the United Nations office by these enemies of humanity who attack the innocent," said a White House statement.

The president of Algeria's former colonial ruler France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who made a state visit to Algeria last week, denounced what he described as these "barbaric, hateful and deeply cowardly acts."

The leaders of Russia, Syria, Spain and Italy also condemned the attacks, as did those in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia.

Al-Qaeda's offshoot in north Africa, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has admitted responsibility for a series of bomb attacks across Algeria this year which have left more than 100 dead.

On September 6, a suicide attack targeting President Bouteflika's convoy in the eastern town of Batna killed 22 people and wounded more than 100, while two days later, another suicide attack east of Algiers, left 30 dead and 40 wounded.

There has, however, been a relative calm in Islamist-inspired violence since September. The four dead recorded in an AFP toll for November was the lowest monthly figure since Algeria's Islamist strife erupted in 1992.

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