Bombings in Egypt called suicides

2 of the intended targets might have been saved by police checkpoints

July 26, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt - Egyptian officials, giving their first detailed account of the bombings at this Red Sea resort, said yesterday that all three bombs were suicide attacks and suggested that they were intended to explode at two hotels and a busy nightlife strip packed with Western tourists.

Police checkpoints apparently prevented two bombers from reaching their intended targets in the early hours of Saturday. They still managed to set off their bombs, but most of those killed were Egyptians.

Sixty-four people died in the attacks, and at least 44 were from Egypt, said Mustafa Afifi, governor of southern Sinai.

As many as 17 foreigners were killed, most of them Europeans.

One American was among the dead, according to the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. News media reports identified her as Kristina Miller, 27, of Las Vegas, who was vacationing with her British boyfriend.

The nationalities of three of the dead have not been determined, but they are thought to be Egyptians, the governor said.

The governor offered no new details on who planned the attacks, which bore a striking similarity to three coordinated bombings in October in and near Taba, a resort in the northeast corner of the Sinai peninsula. A senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of policy restrictions, said police think the bombers drove to Sharm el-Sheik on remote mountain roads in two Isuzu pickup trucks. The main coastal roads leading in and out of Sharm el-Sheik have numerous police checkpoints.

The growing evidence that the attacks were aimed primarily at foreign visitors complicates the task of Egyptian officials, who worry that it could damage the country's thriving tourist trade. A machine-gun attack on European tourists in 1997 at Luxor, on the Nile, scared away many visitors for several years.

"This is international terrorism that has no religion, ethnicity or values," Afifi said. "They are trying to kill innocent people and ruin the livelihoods of the people here."

As the Egyptians broadened their search, police put up posters at the Sharm el-Sheik airport and elsewhere depicting six Pakistani men who arrived in Cairo about a month ago and disappeared a few days later.

Police want to question the Pakistanis, though Egyptian security officials, including the security official in Sharm el-Sheik, emphasized that there is no evidence that the men came from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheik or that they were linked to the bombings.

The three attacks appeared to be well planned, but only one seems to have hit its target.

Police think the first bombing, in which a small pickup truck exploded in the middle of a wide street just outside the town's Old Market, was intended for a nearby hotel filled with European guests.

Three to five minutes later, police said, a second bomber crashed a similar pickup truck into the lobby of his intended target, the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, and detonated his explosives, destroying much of the front of the hotel, which has 220 rooms and was fully booked, mostly with Europeans.

The last of the three explosions, about three minutes after the second blast, was detonated less than 50 yards from a pedestrian promenade lined with bars and restaurants by a bomber on foot in a parking lot. It caused relatively few fatalities.

The security official investigating the case said one person carried out each attack and that he is confident that all three bombers were killed. Other officials and some witnesses had said they thought one or more of the bombers might have escaped. The investigator said the three unidentified bodies could be those of the bombers.

Sharm el-Sheik's extensive security measures appear to have disrupted the attacks and probably saved lives.

In the case of the first attack at the market, police had established a checkpoint at the end of a one-way street, effectively blocking the bomber's path to the nearby Iberotel, which they think was his destination. Such ambush checkpoints are a permanent part of Sharm el-Sheik's anti-terrorism security.

The Iberotel is similar to the Ghazala, with a lobby close to the road. Both have guards and fixed barriers, as is the case with nearly every hotel in town. Both hotels were packed with Western tourists.

The bomber was driving through the market on his way to the hotel and probably stopped when he saw the police checkpoint, Afifi said. Police speculate that the bomb was on a timing device, set to explode when the truck reached the hotel, about 150 yards away.

The third bomber, who was apparently carrying his explosives in a bag or strapped to his waist, was walking in the direction of the promenade, which includes a long row of cafes and restaurants, among them several American chains such as the Hard Rock Cafe, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and McDonald's.

"Our place was full, mostly with foreigners," said Ayman Naseem, marketing manager of the Hard Rock Cafe.

Naseem said police guarded the entrance to the promenade that night, as always. He speculated that the bomber might have been spooked as he approached and detoured into the parking lot.

It is not clear why the bomb exploded there. Afifi said he thinks the bomber died and that police had found scraps of fabric, possibly from the bag he was carrying.

Police drew several parallels between this attack and the one in Taba in October, including the execution, equipment, and the types of explosives used. The security official would not describe the bombs, except to say that the explosive material was "locally made, large in quantity, but amateurish."

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