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DELLYS, Algeria (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's north Africa wing said it was behind two suicide attacks that killed at least 57 people in Algeria in the past two days, according to a statement posted on the Internet on Saturday.
It said the al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb was behind Saturday's suicide truck bombing at a coast guard barracks east of Algiers and an attack in the town of Batna less than 48 hours earlier. A total of 57 people were killed in the two attacks.
The statement said President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was originally the intended target of the bomb in Batna, 430 km southeast of Algiers, but the bomber was forced detonate his device prematurely after being discovered shortly before a scheduled visit by the Algerian leader.
The bomber blew himself up among a crowd waiting to see Bouteflika, killing 20 people.
"We reiterate that the majority of those killed in this operation were from the police and security forces ... and that our brother did not target innocent people as reported by the media," said the statement, posted on an Islamist Web site.
The statement, whose authenticity could not be verified, said two al Qaeda fighters carried out the operations "in defence of Islam and the Islamic nation" and it used a truck packed with 800 kg of explosives in Saturday's bombing at the coast guard barracks in the port of Dellys, 100 km east of Algiers.
The blast destroyed the barracks, killing 37 people, hospital sources said. It was seen by the government as an attempt to wreck its efforts to end 15 years of political violence.
"I heard a big blast at about eight this morning and I found out that it targeted the port of the city," said resident Saeed Hamdaoui, 28. "Then we heard ambulances."
North African countries have stepped up security coordination to counter armed groups seeking to establish Islamic rule in a region on Europe's southern flank that depends to a large extent on oil and gas exports and tourism.
Al Qaeda's No. 2 commander, Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahri, referred to north Africa in a broadcast in July and said the region's "corrupt" governments should be removed.
Witnesses said the Dellys explosion wrecked the wooden barracks, damaged several neighbouring houses and shattered windows in nearby streets.
Soldiers armed with automatic rifles sealed off the immediate vicinity after the attack.
Authorities called on Algerians to stage rallies for peace throughout the country, Africa's second biggest, on Sunday.
In New York, France's U.N. ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, current Security Council president, recalled the 15-member body's sharp criticism of the Batna attack.
"This condemnation must obviously be reiterated with strength, after the new heinous terrorist attack committed today in Dellys," he said.
Conflict broke out in Algeria in 1992 after military-backed authorities scrapped elections that an Islamist party was set to win. The authorities had feared an Islamic revolution.
Up to 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed.