Explosions rock Egyptian resort area
35 dead, 160 injured in three blasts near border with Israel
Israelis injured in a bomb blast in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba arrive Friday at a hospital in the southern Israeli city of Eilat.
NBC News and news services
Updated: 1:01 a.m. ET Oct. 8, 2004
CAIRO, Egypt - Three explosions shook popular resorts Thursday night on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian police said at least 35 people were killed and 160 others were wounded.
Most of the victims were reported to be Israelis on vacation in the region for Simchat Torah at the end of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Israeli anti-terrorism officials called on all Israelis to leave Sinai immediately, Army Radio reported, and the Foreign Ministry said Israel would help evacuate as many as 15,000 Israelis who may want to leave.
The first and most serious blast took place at the Hilton hotel in Egypt’s Taba resort, only yards from the Israeli border, about 10 p.m. (3 p.m. ET).
“The whole front of the hotel has collapsed. There are dozens of people on the floor, lots of blood. It is very tense,” Yigal Vakni, a witness, told Army Radio. “I am standing outside of the hotel. The whole thing is burning, and they have nothing to put it out with.”
Yerucham Mendola, a spokesman for rescue workers, said, “We know of other people trapped under the ruins of the hotel,” which was the scene of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in January 2001.
Israeli and Egyptian officials said the explosion was caused by a truck bomb, and Egyptian television said police had made initial arrests of suspects. No further details were immediately available.
About midnight, two smaller blasts struck the area of Ras al Shitan, a camping area near the town of Nuweiba south of Taba, witnesses said.
Amsalem Sarrag, whose uncle and cousin own camps in Ras al Shitan, told The Associated Press that both told him that Israeli cars exploded outside their camps. The two blasts were only five seconds apart, he said.
Dozens killed, injured
Egyptian police said 35 people had died and that 160 others had been injured. Israeli police confirmed that at least 30 of them were killed at the Hilton. Rescue efforts were still under way Friday morning, and Israeli officials told NBC News that there could be more casualties among people trapped in the rubble in Taba. Other officials put the death toll at 14 or 15, however.
Egyptians reportedly did not at first allow Israeli rescuers to enter the country but later relented after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, but relations have been chilly as a result of Israeli military actions in Palestinian areas.
Israeli officials, citing Egyptian sources, told The Jerusalem Post that Egyptian military activity had cut off the Sinai Peninsula from the rest of the country. Israeli Army Radio reported that the Taba crossing was closed except for rescue vehicles.
The Israeli military called an emergency meeting of its general staff in Tel Aviv and set up a “war room” to deal with the attacks, the Post reported. Military sources told the newspaper that the level of alert along the Egyptian border had not been heightened, however.
Al-Qaida link suggested
Egyptian security officials initially played down the possibility of terrorism, saying the explosion took place among gas tanks in the hotel kitchen, but they abandoned that theory after several hours. An Egyptian security official later told NBC News that the Taba blast was caused by a booby-trapped truck.
Israeli Television / via APTN
Emergency personnel outside of Joseftal Hospital in Eilat, Israel, assist young victims of one of three explosions which occured on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, near the Israeli border on Thursday.
The news agency Agence France-Presse reported that a previously unknown organization calling itself Jamaa Al-Islamiya Al-Alamiya, or World Islamist Group, called its office in Jerusalem to claim responsibility for the Taba blast “in revenge for the Palestinian and Arab martyrs dying in Palestine and Iraq.”
There were no competing claims of responsibility from more established groups.
But contributors on Islamic Web sites often used by militant groups linked to or inspired by al-Qaida were praising the explosions and linking them to a recent videotape said to have been issued by al-Qaida’s Egyptian-born second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
That tape, which was aired by Al-Jazeera television on Oct. 1, called for militants to organize and attack countries that had given Israel “means of survival.” The tape also urged holy warriors to fight Israelis and Americans before they entered Egypt.
U.S. to NBC: ‘Al-Qaida farm team’ may have role
U.S. officials also speculated that the blasts had some link to al-Qaida.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News that they had no independent information on who may have carried out the attacks, but one noted that the militant Islamic organization Hamas, the leading violent group in Israel and the occupied territories, had never carried out multiple near-simultaneous attacks, nor had it ever carried out attacks outside Israel.
“This sounds like an al-Qaida farm team,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Israeli media said that the Hilton hotel was ablaze and that 10 floors had collapsed. Israeli rescue teams rushed over the border to the scene.
The blast could be heard loudly a mile from the hotel, said Selma Abu el-Dahab, who works at another Taba hotel. She said a worker from her hotel returned from the Hilton and told of the explosion before collapsing.
More International News
On Sept. 9, the Israeli government urged citizens not to visit Egypt, citing a “concrete” terrorist threat to tourists. The warning, which was issued by the counterterrorism center in the prime minister’s office, identified the Sinai Peninsula as the potential target.
Taba, the main crossing between Israel and Egypt, is the gateway for thousands of Israelis who travel to the hotels and resorts on the Red Sea. Thursday was the last day of the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot, when thousands of Israelis go on vacation in the Sinai.
Hundreds of Israelis have been killed in suicide bombings during four years of conflict with the Palestinians. Egyptian resorts had remained popular with Israelis despite popular animosity in Egypt to Israel.