(Reuters) – Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing has claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a military academy in Algeria, accusing it of supporting the regime of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
A statement by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) named Abu Anas and Abu Noh as the two suicide bombers who hit the barracks housing a prestigious military school in the coastal town of Cherchell on Friday in one of the deadliest attacks in the country in recent years.
Algeria’s Defense Ministry said 16 soldiers and two civilians were killed in the attack. AQIM’s statement, posted on an Islamist website which regularly carries al Qaeda communiques, said 36 people were killed.
“On the night of the 27th of this holy month, and while the Muslim Libyan people were completing their victory over the dictator Gaddafi … the mujahideen in Algeria pursued their blessed attacks against the Algerian criminal regime, an ally to Gaddafi,” the statement, posted on Sunday, said.
“And this time we targeted a symbol of the Algerian regime, the biggest military barracks in the country in Cherchell.”
Algeria has previously denied accusations by Libyan rebels of backing Gaddafi in the country’s civil war.
Algeria, an energy exporter and a key U.S. ally in its campaign against al Qaeda, is still emerging from nearly two decades of conflict between security forces and Islamist militant groups that killed around 200,000 people.
In the past three years the violence has subsided, with suicide bombings on targets in built-up areas becoming rare.
The location of Cherchell, which lies some 100 km (60 miles) west from Algiers was unusual as attacks have previously focused on territory east of the capital, including the mountainous Kabylie region, where AQIM has a stronghold.
Algeria has said it believes AQIM is exploiting the chaos in Libya, and smuggling weapons out of that battlezone to its base in the Sahara.
On Friday, the attackers drove up to the barracks soon after iftar — when Muslims break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Residents said the first attacker blew himself up at the entrance before the second ran into the front courtyard where officers were sitting down to eat.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi and Martina Fuchs in Dubai; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian)