Egypt Resort Bombs Target Israelis; at Least 22 Dead
By Mahmoud Ali
TABA, Egypt (Reuters) - At least 22 people were killed in back-to-back bombings in Egyptian resorts packed with Israeli tourists, and Israel said it appeared to be the work of al Qaeda.
The toll looked certain to rise Friday, with Israeli officials saying 38 people were missing and bodies remained buried in the rubble of the Taba Hilton, on Egypt's border with Israel, after a truck bomb sheared off a big chunk of the hotel.
The attack was followed by blasts at two backpacker resorts further south on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, crowded with Israelis vacationing there during a week-long Jewish holiday despite official warnings they might be targeted by Islamic militants.
At least six of the dead were Israelis and many of the others were Egyptians. More than 120 people were wounded in Thursday night's blasts, which plunged normally placid vacation spots into nightmares of blood, smoke and screams.
In the aftermath, Israel's fire chief complained of insufficient cooperation in the rescue effort, saying Egypt was using "primitive means" with workers digging with bare hands.
Israeli officials said a truck bomb loaded with explosives rammed into the hotel lobby where it blew up and a suicide bomber detonated a bomb near the swimming pool moments later.
One side of the 10-floor hotel building was torn off by the explosion, cutting off an entire wing of the 430-room hotel.
Israeli radio stations said some guests who were in their rooms at the time of the blast fell to their deaths.
"There were a lot of people on the ground. We couldn't tell in the chaos if they were dead or not," said Israeli Ronit Levi, who had been a guest at the Taba Hilton. "It was mayhem."
Firefighters said the ceiling of the hotel dining room where tables were set for dinner had collapsed and that bodies could be seen under rubble in the ruins of the luxury hotel. Hundreds of dazed tourists streamed over the border into Israel. Among them, an unconscious child and a young woman, her arm wrapped in a blood-soaked bandage.
A previously unknown pro-al Qaeda Islamist group called Islamic Tawhid Brigades claimed the blast on a Web Site. The claim, along with one from another unknown group calling itself the World Islamist Group, could not be verified.
But Israel's deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim told reporters the attack appeared to be the work of "international terror groups like al Qaeda or branches of it."
"It is not the kind of attack that we know comes from Palestinian terror organizations," he said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites) called an emergency cabinet meeting.
Israeli security agencies had warned travelers against visiting Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea, saying they might be targeted by Palestinians engaged in a four-year-old uprising or by international Islamist groups.
As many as 10,000 Israelis were thought to be in Sinai, a popular budget destination close to home, for the ending of the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot. Israel's Foreign Ministry was preparing to evacuate all of them in the next few hours.
Two explosions within minutes of each other also hit backpacker beaches near the resort of Nuweiba, about 60 kilometers (miles) to the southwest of Taba. Two Israelis, a man and a woman, were killed in the blasts, Israeli officials said.
"It was a nightmare. We saw a flame shoot into the sky and then a mushroom cloud. We all panicked," said Ana Usbitski, who had been holidaying at Ras al-Sultan near Nuweiba.
Israeli officials said 20 bodies had been pulled from the rubble of the Hilton and two were recovered at one of the backpacker resorts.
A senior Egyptian official put the number of dead at 15.
The governor of South Sinai, Mustafa Afifi, told Egyptian television he believed the blasts were caused by "booby-trapped cars because we found small pick-ups completely burned out."
Sinai was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war but returned to Egypt after a 1979 peace deal, one of the few that Israel has with Arab countries.
The Israeli-built Taba Hilton was the scene of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in January 2001.
Hundreds of Israelis have been killed in suicide bombings during four years of conflict with the Palestinians. Israelis have also been targeted abroad by bombers, most recently when a November 2002 bomb attack killed 15 people at a hotel frequented by Israeli tourists in Kenya.
Egyptian resorts had remained popular with Israelis despite widespread animosity in Egypt toward the Jewish state.
Israeli officials said ambulances and the army's elite rescue team had been delayed for hours because Egyptian border guards had insisted on seeing passports and going through formalities.
(Additional reporting by Megan Goldin in Jerusalem and Edmund Blair in Cairo)