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Associated PressWomen wait outside a morgue in Casablanca Saturday. At least 41 people were killed in a string of terrorist blasts early Saturday morning.

Associated Press

CASABLANCA, Morocco (AP) - Investigators rounded up suspected Islamic militants Saturday after nearly simultaneous suicide strikes against Jewish and Spanish targets in downtown Casablanca that killed 41 people, including 13 bombers, an official said.

Five groups of attackers - 14 in all- carried out the bombings, Interior Minister Mostapha Sahel said. A surviving, wounded attacker was being interrogated, he said. A bomb in working order was found in a raid on the attacker's house, the minister said.

An Interior Ministry official said investigators were focusing on whether the attackers were linked to a known extremist group, Salafia Jihadia, which is suspected of ties to the al-Qaida terror network.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said suspected Islamic militants were being questioned, but that it was "too early at this stage to refer to them as arrests." It was not clear how many people were being questioned.

Police set up barriers on roads into Casablanca, checking cars.

Salafia Jihadia has been the object of police sweeps for months. About 100 people found to have ties with the homegrown group were in custody before the attacks Friday night. They include an Islamic cleric known for his fiery sermons and anti-Western views who was detained in Casablanca in March.

The bombers appeared organized, and their attacks were carefully planned. The interior minister said they divided into five groups in the attacks on five civilian targets - from a Spanish social club to an old Jewish cemetery. About 100 people were injured, 14 seriously, the minister said.

The dead included two Spaniards, two French and one Italian, he said.

The deadliest bombing ripped through the upscale Casa de Espana social club as clients were playing bingo or dining. About 20 people were killed, among them a guard whose throat was slit, according to the club president.

The scene of horror was repeated at other downtown sites, including a glitzy hotel.

"People were severely wounded, crawling in the street, completely burned and disfigured," said Sabah Mazouzi, a 33-year-old Moroccan teacher who was in the club but escaped unscathed. "I saw one person missing his jaw," she said.

Without directly implicating al-Qaida, the Moroccan government placed the blame on international terrorism.

"We have strong suspicions that this cell had contacts with foreign groups," said the interior minister, though he also said the attackers appeared to all have been Moroccans.

The bombings were "the work of an international network of blind terrorism," Hassam Aourid, a spokesman for the Moroccan king, said in a statement carried by the official MAP news agency.

"Morocco is determined to crack down on it without mercy," he said.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said al-Qaida involvement was plausible, given the group's apparent intention to strike lightly defended targets. Al-Qaida maintains a presence in Morocco, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

In an audiotape released in February, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden himself described Morocco as one of several U.S. allies "ready for liberation."

President Bush said the United States was offering Morocco assistance in finding those responsible.

"These acts of murder show, once again, that terrorism respects no boundaries nor borders," he said in a statement. "These acts demonstrate that the war against terror goes on."

The strikes left a grisly trail of devastation, stunned this Muslim kingdom on the Atlantic coast - a staunch U.S. ally - and left the world to grapple anew with the knowledge that terror's reach has no bounds.

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.

Besides the Casa de Espana, suicide bombers struck a Jewish community center called the Israelite Community Circle, an old Jewish cemetery, a major downtown hotel and the Belgian Consulate.

However, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said his country believed that the consulate was "collateral damage," with the real target a restaurant across the street.

The Positano restaurant is owned by a French Jew of Moroccan origin. Jean-Mark Levy said the bomb exploded in the middle of the narrow street and the consulate took most of the impact.

The attacks just after 9 p.m. local time Friday threw Casablanca into chaos. The city remained on edge Saturday.

"We are profoundly shocked," said Serge Berdugo, president of the Council of the Jewish Community in Morocco. "This drama is a thunderbolt in a serene sky."

As many as 4,000 Jews live in Morocco, and the kingdom is proud of the harmony that marks relations between its Jewish minority and Muslims.

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But Morocco also has been grappling with rising Islamic militancy. King Mohammed VI had expressed concern that the U.S.-led war on Iraq could rouse the country's Islamic fundamentalist movement.

In April, the kingdom put off municipal elections over fears that fundamentalists could gain ground. That decision came after scores of arrests among suspected Muslim militants.

Last year, Moroccan authorities cracked an al-Qaida plot to attack U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar. Three Saudis were given 10-year prison sentences in February.

Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islamic groups at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said terrorists wanted the Casablanca strikes to convey the message: "We are capable of striking anywhere, very efficiently and regardless of security measures."

The terrorists were saying that "the war with America is going on, anywhere, and anytime," he added.

At the Casa de Espana, club president Rafael Bermudez said a suicide bomber slit a guard's throat before blowing himself up under a tent where clients were seated, including several Spaniards.

"It's a catastrophe, a tragedy," he told The Associated Press. "I don't understand why terrorists chose this place."

Spain was a close ally of the United States in the war on Iraq.

"There was flesh. Flesh everywhere," Lamia Haffi, an employee of the restaurant, told Spanish National Radio.

The Morocco bombings came just days after U.S. officials warned of possible worldwide attacks by al-Qaida, causing countries to step up security.

The German government on Saturday urged its citizens to be on their guard while in Morocco and advised against nonessential travel to Djibouti, one of several East African countries where Britain has warned nationals to be on guard against terrorist attacks.

France reinforced patrols around subway stations, train stations and other potential terrorist targets.

The Israeli airline El Al also suspended flights to Kenya Saturday because of security concerns.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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