Friday, October 08, 2004

 

The latest terrorist horror

From the New York Times:

October 8, 2004
Death Toll Is Uncertain After 3 Explosions Strike Resort Towns
By STEVEN ERLANGER

EILAT, Israel, Friday, Oct. 8 - Three explosions shook three Egyptian Sinai resorts popular with vacationing Israelis on Thursday night. Israeli officials said they believed the blasts were caused by terrorist bombs.

There were conflicting reports on the number of casualties. Egypt said at least 30 people were killed, including 12 Egyptians, The Associated Press reported Friday. But an Israeli official later said he could confirm only 14 or 15 dead, including five or six Israelis. Earlier, Israel Radio had reported that at least 35 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.

[Israeli officials confirmed 22 deaths and thought at least four more victims were buried under the hotel ruins, the Associated Press later reported. The Egyptian Interior Ministry issued a statement saying the death toll had reached 22.]

In the largest explosion, early reports suggested that a truck bomb was driven into the Taba Hilton, a large hotel in a village just across the border and near the Israeli town of Eilat. Israel Radio said Friday morning that officials thought there was also a suicide bomber in the Hilton. The hotel was badly damaged by the blast and an ensuing fire, and 10 floors in the complex collapsed. There were reports of people buried in the rubble.

The two other explosions took place to the southwest, in the resort villages of Ras al-Sultan and Nuweiba. At least seven people died at Ras al-Sultan, most of them Egyptian workers, according to the Egyptian news media.

Last month, Israeli intelligence warned Israelis to keep out of the Sinai desert, citing vague but solid information about possible attacks.

No definitive claims of responsibility were publicized, though Agence France-Presse reported that someone claiming to be from a previously unknown group, Jamaa al-Islamiya al-Alamiya, or World Islamist Group, had taken responsibility for the Hilton blast in a telephone call to its bureau in Jerusalem. The caller said the attack was "in revenge for the Palestinian and Arab martyrs dying in Palestine and Iraq," the agency reported.

Part of the Hilton apparently crumbled immediately after the blast. "I heard a huge explosion," said Yigal Vakni, an Israeli at the Hilton who spoke to Israeli Army Radio. "The wall near me collapsed and people began to run." The blast was outside, he said. "When we went out we saw the shops and the internal wall of the hotel had collapsed."

Many people were lying on the ground, he said, "There is a lot of blood, a lot of screaming." An unnamed Israeli woman told Israeli television: "We immediately ran toward the beach, everyone running at once, and windows continue to shatter as we ran away. Entire families were wounded; they ran to the beach and were covered with blood."

Panicked Israelis rushed the border post, trying to flee Egypt, yelling at the border guards in Arabic that their belongings and documents were still in the burning hotel. Guards fired shots into the air to try to disperse them, before finally shutting the terminal temporarily. Roads were blocked, leaving vacationing Israelis at other hotels trapped.

Hadas Manor, an Israeli journalist staying at another Taba hotel, told Israeli television: "Most of the people here haven't come with their cars, so they depend on Egyptian taxis that are not operating now."

Television broadcasts of the border showed an Arab Israeli woman being carried by her husband. As he put her down, she collapsed, and medics rushed to her.

Israeli television also showed scenes of ambulances arriving at Eilat hospitals and unloading the wounded, many of them bandaged and bloody. Others, apparently in shock, were wheeled in on stretchers.

Israeli television interviewed a man, identified as Yaniv, who described theblast near Ras al-Sultan.

"We were sitting in a restaurant and suddenly heard a very powerful blast," the man said. "The electricity went out and rocks were jolted by the blast," he added. "We then saw a second explosion not far from the first blast; it was a ball of fire higher on the mountain. We immediately drove over to the site and found wounded people on the ground, there were Israelis among them, they were bleeding in the sand and there was no one there to help them."

The warning about possible attacks came in an unusual public alert from Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet intelligence service, not to go to Sinai resorts during the harvest festival season of Sukkot, which began last week. He said there was intelligence about a possible attack against Israeli tourists in Egypt's Sinai, where as many as 12,000 Israelis were traveling for the holidays, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Since his warning, Israel has moved in force into the Gaza Strip that borders Egypt, trying to stop militant Palestinians like Hamas and Islamic Jihad from firing rockets into Israel.

But Israeli officials suggested that an attack of this magnitude would have been planned carefully from within Egypt and was not tied to the Gaza operation. Hamas, which has improving relations with Cairo, may not want to embarrass Egypt in this way, said Oded Granot, an Israeli commentator on Arab affairs. He suggested that Al Qaeda, an offshoot of the group or an Egyptian radical group might be responsible. In November 2002, attackers drove a car bomb into a hotel popular with Israelis in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 13, and fired missiles at an Israeli charter jet, which missed the target. Israeli officials speculated Thursday night that militants, finding it increasingly hard to attack Israelis in Israel, are choosing to attack them abroad. They may also be trying to cause strains between Israel and Egypt, which are trying to cooperate on the Israeli government plan for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Israel also regularly complains that Egypt should do more to stop the smuggling of arms into Gaza and that Cairo does not take its security responsibilities seriously enough.

The Egyptians say that Israel would bestprotect itself by making serious progress toward peace with the Palestinians, rather than by accelerating the cycle of violence. But Egypt will not want the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to spill across the border and is expected by Israeli officials to move quickly to try to track down those responsible.

The attacks may also be intended to damage Egypt's tourism industry, on which it depends heavily. In 1997, after militants attacked tourists in Luxor and killed nearly 70 people, Egypt cracked down hard on Islamic Jihad.

The Egyptian government at first suggested the Hilton explosion was caused by gas canisters and initially prevented Israeli rescue workers without passports from crossing the border to the hotel. The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, spoke with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and persuaded him to allow Israeli rescue workers to the scene without delay.
Yuval Steinitz, chairman of Parliament's foreign and defense committee, said: "What is sad is the fact that over recent months we have received incessant warnings concerning a possible attack in Sinai, and these warnings grew more and more clear, but the public failed to listen."

Taba is a small village dominated by the Hilton, originally built by the Israelis. Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982 but claimed that Taba was inside Israel according to the international border. International arbitrators disagreed, and Israel returned Taba, along with the expensive hotel, to Egypt in March 1989. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have met numerous times at the hotel for peace talks.

Witnesses told similar stories of the attacks.

Hassan Elkhin told Israeli Channel 10: "After the blast, parts of the wall and ceiling began to crumble. I ran to look for my friends and found them downstairs in the casino. I pulled them out and we managed to leave the hotel. The walls around us collapsed, and there was fire around."

Standing outside the hotel, he said, "we watched as the rooms disappeared, they collapsed one after the other."

When asked if he wasn't afraid to travel to Sinai, Mr. Elkhin said: "I heard the alerts and warnings, but I never believed anything could ever happen there, because, after all, every one there is Israeli.

"Still," he said, "it happened."

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