Blasts kill at least 23 in Egypt

3 attacks in resort area injure more than 60

April 25, 2006|By LAURA KING AND HOSSAM HAMALAWY | LAURA KING AND HOSSAM HAMALAWY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO, EGYPT -- A series of explosions ripped through the Egyptian resort town of Dahab last night, killing at least 23 people, injuring more than 60 and raising suspicions that Islamist militants had once again taken aim at the tourist-laden Sinai Peninsula.

The three near-simultaneous blasts, which centered on a hotel quarter packed with restaurants, nightclubs and bars, shattered the balmy desert evening just after 7, when the streets of the seaside town were packed with foreign tourists and Egyptian visitors strolling, shopping and dining.

Egypt's Interior Ministry said the dead included 20 Egyptians and three foreigners, and that about two-thirds of those hurt were Egyptians.

Witnesses reported chaotic scenes of screaming, bloodied victims; billowing smoke; and, in some cases, long waits for emergency help to arrive. Small local hospitals and clinics were quickly overwhelmed with the wounded.

Most of the seriously injured were taken to the larger town of Sharm el-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort that was itself targeted by militants in an attack in July that killed at least 64 people. Nine months before that, nearly three dozen people were killed in similar blasts that hit the resorts of Taba and Ras Shaitan, close to the Israeli border.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for yesterday's attacks, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak described them as an act of terror.

"The president stressed the need to ... hunt down those responsible for this wicked terrorist act, so that they pay the penalty by force of law," the state-run Middle East News Agency said.

The attacks also drew condemnation from President Bush, who called them a "heinous act against innocent civilians."

Denunciations came as well from the Hamas-led Palestinian government, which last week refused to condemn a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv carried out by the militant group Islamic Jihad. Nine people were killed in that attack in addition to the bomber.

Dahab, a one-time Bedouin village on the Gulf of Aqaba about 70 miles south of the Israeli border, draws a low-key and eclectic crowd that includes scuba divers, European sun-seekers and backpackers looking to escape the package-tour atmosphere of Sharm el-Sheikh, a short drive to the south.

The blasts occurred during Egypt's five-day national springtime festival of Sham el Nessim, and also fell on Easter weekend for Christians who follow Eastern rites, including Egypt's Coptic Christians.

The attack coincided as well with the height of the tourist season in the Sinai, which typically sees a rush of foreign visitors before blistering summer temperatures set in.

"I was walking outside when I heard three explosions - they were so strong that I almost became deaf," said Vanessa Korany, 25, a Cairo schoolteacher who was in Dahab with a dozen friends to celebrate Sham el Nessim. "There was a cloud of smoke everywhere, and things were shaking and glass was smashing."

Egyptian authorities blamed the two previous major attacks in the Sinai during the last 18 months on local militants without ties to international organizations. However, intelligence agencies in other countries said they suspected involvement by al-Qaida.

Until recent years, Dahab was the province mainly of young backpackers who flocked to its inexpensive beach-hut encampments. But scruffy accommodations have lately been supplanted by expensive resorts frequented by European tourists.

Israel initially closed its border with Egypt after yesterday's explosions but allowed returning Israelis and other travelers to enter Israel and dispatched a fleet of ambulances to the frontier to treat any arriving wounded. Israel said it offered to send medical assistance to Dahab but received no immediate reply from Egyptian authorities.

Traffic was reported to have backed up at the main border crossing, just south of the Israeli city of Eilat. The Sinai Peninsula is a popular destination for Israelis, despite repeated government warnings against travel there.

Visits peaked during the Passover holiday, which ended last week, but even so, about 5,000 Israelis were thought to have been in Sinai at the time of the attack. Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, had this advice for compatriots: "Go home."

No Israelis were thought to be among the dead, but several were injured, according to Israel's Channel 10. Israel placed its forces in southern Israel on high alert after the attack.

The bombing took place a day after the airing of a videotape by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in which he accused the West of waging "war on Islam" and asserted that ordinary Western citizens were legitimate targets.

However, two Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they doubted yesterday's attack was linked to the tape.

The same officials said details of yesterday's explosion were too sketchy to evaluate, but they noted that near-simultaneous blasts are a hallmark of al-Qaida.

Egyptian officials said they did not know whether the explosions were the result of suicide attacks or of bombs that were planted and activated by timers or remote control.

In recent months, Israeli officials have been concerned about Islamic militants taking advantage of the now-porous border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Israel withdrew from Gaza nine months ago, and handed control of the border crossing to the Palestinian Authority, together with a force of European observers.

Laura King and Hossam Hamalawy write for the Los Angeles Times.

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