Death toll near 90 in Egypt bombings

Two extremist groups claim responsibility for resort attack

Few foreigners among the dead

Damage to tourism industry could threaten economy

July 24, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt - As the death toll rose from the bombings yesterday at this Red Sea resort, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to hunt down those responsible, calling the attack "this cowardly, criminal act."

The three nearly simultaneous blasts early yesterday killed at least 88 people and injured more than 100 others. Most of the dead were Egyptians, but at least two Britons, two Germans, an Italian and a Czech were also killed, authorities said.

Two extremist groups claimed responsibility, although Egyptians remained puzzled by what the bombers hoped to achieve other than to destroy the nation's tourism, the backbone of Egypt's struggling economy.

One group - the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, al-Qaida, in Syria and Egypt - had also claimed responsibility for a series of bombings that killed 34 people in October at the resort town of Taba, on Egypt's border with Israel.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Holy Warriors of Egypt said in a statement faxed to newspapers that it had carried out the latest attack and listed the names of five people it said were the bombers.

The Egyptian government and British tourist agencies were sending in airplanes to fly nervous tourists home. Some Egyptian shopkeepers were shutting down their shops, complaining that tourists were either leaving or afraid to leave their hotels. As the sun set yesterday over the desert mountains, few people ventured to the beachside restaurants.

Mubarak responds

The bombings occurred as Mubarak, who has led Egypt for nearly a quarter-century, faces his first multiparty elections in September.

He flew here yesterday to tour the blast sites and visit with some of the hospitalized victims.

"This cowardly, criminal act is aimed at undermining Egypt's security and stability and harming its people and its guests," Mubarak said in a televised speech.

"This will only increase our determination in chasing terrorism."

Workers, meanwhile, began clearing rubble at the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, where a van carrying a bomb crashed its way into the lobby, the explosion ripping through the ground floor and collapsing the upper level like an accordion. It also blew table-size chunks of concrete out of the building and blackened cars in the parking lot.

Sammy Al Said, an engineer at the Jolieville hotel and casino across the street, ran out of his house soon after he heard the explosion after 1 a.m. yesterday and found a victim, impossible to identify even as a man or woman, severed in half on the pavement.

"These bombings are a cancer," he said, pushing his bicycle home from work past the bombing scene. "The bomb does not choose if it kills an American or British or Egyptian. It kills all the people."

In the normally quiet halls of Sharm el-Sheik's International Hospital, dozens of the wounded lay shoulder to shoulder wrapped in bandages and in various stages of consciousness. One empty bed was stained from top to bottom with blood.

According to Dr. Ahmed Barakat, head of the hospital, the majority of the injured were Egyptian; only about 19 of more than 100 wounded treated after the blast were foreigners.

There were no reports of American casualties.

Coordinated attack

The three bomb blasts were well-coordinated. Attackers detonated two car bombs simultaneously at 1:15 a.m., about two miles apart.

One car, packed with 660 pounds of explosives, blew up on impact as it crashed into Ghazala Gardens in Sharm's Naama Bay, the main strip of hotels, authorities said.

A second bomb, weighing about 440 pounds, exploded in a shopping area known as Old Market, popular among Egyptians working in the town's resorts.

A third bomb, hidden in a bag, detonated about the same time near a coffee shop and supermarket near the beachfront.

Egypt's interior minister, Habib al-Adli, said there were indications that the latest bombings were linked to the explosions in October in Taba.

`We have some clues'

"We have some clues, especially about the car that was exploded in the Old Market, and investigators are pursuing," Adli said.

The trial of three men accused of involvement in the Taba bombings began this month.

Outside the Sharm el-Sheik old market, where a bomb blast tore through two floors of shops, George Hakeem narrowly escaped with his life.

The bomb exploded as he was locking the door to his shop on the mall's second floor, throwing him to the ground, shattering the glass in his store and sending him fleeing.

Yesterday he returned, but only as part of his preparations to flee for good. He was loading what was left of his stock of wooden pyramids, coffee pots and small statues and getting ready to leave Sharm el-Sheik, afraid the tourists would not return.

"When there are no tourists," he said, "there's no food."

Tourism industry

He should know. In 1997, gunmen at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, in southern Egypt, killed 54 people, scaring away tourists for several years. Hakeem's family owned a tourist shop there and was forced to shut down for a year.

Now he is afraid it will happen again.

So is tour guide Alaa Sharaf, 28, who worried that three planeloads of tourists he was planning to welcome in Sharm el-Sheik might not show up.

"If you had plans to fly here tomorrow, would you come?" he asked. "After this catastrophe, I don't know how I can live."

Not everyone was as pessimistic. Khalid Muhamed, 29, owner of a supermarket and souvenir shop that had been struck by the blast, swept up the broken glass and broken goods. He called his supply company to restock his shelves and by last night had reopened for business - without windows.

"There can be no break in life," he said. All he lacked were customers.

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