Israelis rush home after hotel blast

Thousands cross Egypt border

hunt for bomb victims goes on

October 09, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TABA, Egypt - Thousands of Israelis, their vacations abruptly cut short by a string of deadly bombings at seaside resorts, poured across the border from Egypt and returned home yesterday as authorities picked through the rubble of a luxury hotel in a grim search for bodies.

Attackers detonated what was believed to be a car bomb in the lobby of the Hilton Taba Resort Hotel on Thursday night and struck campgrounds to the south a short time later.

Authorities said yesterday that 30 people were confirmed to have been killed in the attacks but said the number was sure to climb as more bodies were uncovered from the hotel rubble.

Through the day, rescuers used hammers and pile drivers to cut through six layers of concrete from collapsed hotel floors. As of last night, emergency workers had recovered 28 bodies and said they believed that as many as 20 more might be buried under the debris.

Firefighters pulled a woman out alive but were not optimistic for future rescues.

"Always there is hope," said Israeli police Col. Shalom Tzaroom. "But looking at this, it's hard to believe."

In the bombings at the campgrounds south of Taba, two people were confirmed to have been killed, authorities said.

Most of the victims of Thursday's attacks were Israeli, plunging a nation into grief yesterday. The attacks were all the more difficult for many to bear because no clear suspects and no accurate count of the casualties had immediately emerged.

Only six of the dead Israelis had been positively identified as of last night, including the remains of a 10-year-old boy who was buried yesterday.

No recognized militant group has claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks in Taba, Ras a-Satan and Nuweiba, but Israeli intelligence officers told a Cabinet meeting yesterday that they believed al-Qaida or an affiliated group was responsible.

A previously unknown group calling itself Jama'a al-Islamiya al-Alamiya claimed responsibility in a phone call to a French news agency, but the claim could not be verified.

A posting on an Islamic Internet site claimed that the bombings were to avenge Israel's killing of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas, but that claim, too, couldn't be confirmed.

Israeli leaders called on all 11,000 Israelis in Egypt to return to Israel, and they did so in a continuous stream that began shortly after the bombings and continued into the night yesterday, crossing the border and entering the Israeli city of Elat.

They came carting luggage, holding children, lugging surfboards. Some had guitars. Some drove out in cars battered and limping from the blasts - dented roofs, shattered windshields and caved-in sides.

The procession passed bathers wearing bikinis and splashing in the sea while, a few yards away, stunned people stood hoping their missing loved ones would be the next to emerge from the border crossing office.

Investigators believe that a vehicle packed with more than 250 pounds of explosives plowed into the hotel lobby, causing the devastating blast.

At the site yesterday, charred, twisted frames of at least a dozen cars littered the grounds. A car, almost unrecognizable, was upside down in the lobby.

A pink pocketbook lay next to an English-to-Arabic dictionary. Hundreds of broken chairs were strewn about, as were mattresses, contorted luggage carts and burnt brochures urging people to sign up for snorkeling classes.

An 11-story facade of the south wing of the large hotel had collapsed, leaving a huge slab resting against the side of the building.

Outside, an expansive grassy square dotted with tall palm trees uprooted by the force of the blast was covered with pieces of rubber torn from car tires, shards of metal and even a large section of a spiral staircase that had somehow gotten stuck in a car blown 50 yards from where it had been parked.

A stray engine block was in the parking lot, and trees that were still standing were covered with dirt and filled with dead birds.

Israel had immediately organized an emergency response upon word of the first bomb at the hotel. Realizing that doctors at Elat's only hospital have never treated a major disaster, authorities sent in by helicopter a dozen specialists in dealing with suicide attacks.

The emergency room at Yoseftal Hospital was already full when the bombs went off. Doctors immediately opened up more space; yesterday, a dozen gurneys were lined up at the front door, ready for another influx of wounded. The hospital has 90 beds and treated 144 wounded people; it sent 14 to a more advanced hospital in the city of Beersheba.

Israeli officials worked hard to help evacuate the wounded, find and identify the dead and round up the tourists, but the difficult task required discussions on logistical matters as well as sensitive political matters.

Israeli buses, delayed for hours by Egyptian bureaucracy, eventually made it into the Sinai to pick up hundreds of Israeli tourists. Egypt denied Israel's request to send in helicopters.

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