Sinai resort blast kills dozens

At least 30 die at hotel filled with Israeli tourists

Vacationers stampede for border

October 08, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - A powerful explosion ripped through a luxury resort hotel just across Israel's border in Taba, Egypt, last night, killing at least 30 people and trapping many more amid rubble and flames in what was believed to be an attack targeting Israeli tourists at the end of a Jewish holiday.

Most of the dead and wounded at the hotel were believed to be Israelis.

Two smaller blasts at resorts farther south on the Sinai Peninsula, Ras a-Satan and Nuweiba, killed five more people - three Israelis and two Egyptians. In all, more than 120 people were injured.

Israeli authorities early today were frantically trying to evacuate from Egypt 10,000 tourists who had defied a stern government warning issued last month against traveling in the Sinai because of concerns that militants were planning attacks.

Security officials in Israel said the explosions were caused by car bombs. Egyptian police initially attributed the hotel blast to exploding gas canisters, but they later said on state-run television that they found burned-out pickup trucks at all three sites - evidence of deliberate and coordinated attacks.

Egyptian media also reported that police had made several arrests, though no group has claimed responsibility.

The first explosion occurred about 10 p.m. at the Hilton Taba Resort on the Red Sea and could be heard up to a mile away. Fire raged for two hours, and witnesses said that 10 floors collapsed, sparking widespread panic. The 410-room hotel surrounded by palm trees and near a coral reef was filled to capacity with 812 guests enjoying the beach, snorkeling, gambling and eating Italian and Arab cuisine.

Adi Kassem, an Israeli-Arab doctor who was vacationing at the hotel and was watching television on the sixth floor at the time of the blast, told reporters he treated patients by the side of the swimming pool using the light of his mobile phone to see.

The doctor said the worked alone for about 15 minutes triaging the wounded until other doctors, Israeli and Egyptian, arrived to help. He broke open a medical kit that was in a small hotel clinic.

"The gates of Hell suddenly opened," he told a television station.

Elan Bitran, a tourist from Tel Aviv, told Israel Radio that "people were smashing glass to get out. There was hysteria. Everybody fled." He said his wife and child were on the fifth floor and the ceiling collapsed in their room.

"People are looking for doctors and there are none," Bitran said. "The hotel staff is providing minimal treatment." Doctors in Israel put an urgent call for blood donations, and a hospital in Tel Aviv stayed open through the night.

Television stations showed streams of frantic people racing to the border with Israel, some carrying children on their shoulders, others bloodied. They did not have their suitcases, and most did not have time to grab their passports, and they angrily confronted startled Egyptian border police who fired shots into the air to try to disperse the crowd.

Taba is a tiny town consisting of a few shops and rental car offices, with no fire station and a small hospital that operates more like a medical clinic. It is best known internationally as the site of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in 2001 and is favored as a meeting place for negotiators.

Dozens of Israeli ambulances and rescue crews were allowed to cross the border after some initial delays by Egypt. Up to 30 Israeli firefighters fought the blaze, rescued people from their rooms and pulled the dead and injured from under the rubble.

In a highly unusual development, an Israeli military spokeswoman said today that Israel's army had assumed control of the hotel site and that unarmed civil defense soldiers were working on Egyptian soil.

Medical officials in Israel said that 77 patients were treated at Elat's Yoseftal Hospital, and others were flown by helicopter to get treatment in the center of the country. Israeli anti-terror police and bomb experts also went into Egypt to assist in the investigation.

The last major attack on Israelis abroad occurred in November 2002, when shoulder-launched missiles were fired at an El Al airliner as it took off from Mombassa, Kenya, moments after a car bomb there destroyed a hotel and killed 15 people, three of them Israelis. The missiles missed the plane.

Egypt has battled Islamic militants for years but has cracked down on hard-liners regularly. The last major attack in Egypt was in 1997 when militants killed 58 foreign tourists near the town of Luxor.

Egypt is one of the most popular tourist destinations for Israelis, who flock by the tens of thousands each year to the beaches on the Sinai, often to escape the conflict with the Palestinians and the constant threat of suicide bombings and other attacks that have left about 1,000 dead in the past four years.

Israel captured Sinai in the 1967 Middle East War and returned it to Egypt in 1982 to meet the conditions of a peace treaty signed three years earlier.

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