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Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Bombings rock Egypt; 30 killed

Local extremists loosely connected to bin Laden eyed

JERUSALEM -- Coordinated bombings of three sites in the Egyptian holiday resort of Dahab last night killed at least 30 people and wounded more than 100, authorities said. It was the third deadly attack against tourist targets in the Sinai region in the last 18 months.

The three blasts in the Red Sea resort occurred almost simultaneously shortly after 7 p.m. local time. At least 20 people were reported killed in the el-Mashrabiyah Hotel, where a device apparently exploded in the hotel restaurant.

Other bombs exploded in a nearby supermarket and in a cafeteria.

Egyptian and Israeli analysts said the attacks bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, which had struck using similar methods in the region. Egyptian security officials said the blasts appear to have involved sophisticated devices detonated by remote control, and not by suicide bombers.

''I heard three explosions within five minutes, one after another," witness Ahmad Samir told an Arab-language television network. ''The explosions were only about 50 meters from each other. The police came with their sirens blaring. People carried the wounded to the hospital. People were in panic."

Imad Ashmawi, who owns a hotel, said the carnage in the street was shocking.

''I was in the hotel and I heard three explosions," Ashmawi said in a TV interview. ''I went out and saw people dead and wounded lying on the ground. I helped the police take the wounded to the hospital. It was a terrible sight. You can imagine it. There were bodies and limbs scattered everywhere."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, condemned the explosions.

''The president stressed the need to . . . track down those responsible for this wicked terrorist act, so that they pay the penalty by force of law," said the official Egyptian news agency MENA.

The attack came in the middle of a five-day Egyptian holiday following a weekend of Easter celebrations by the Greek Orthodox, the largest Christian group in the region. Dahab was full of local tourists and visitors from Europe.

It was the third time in the past 18 months that the Sinai peninsula has been targeted by terrorists. A total of 32 people were killed in October 2004 when suicide bombers drove a vehicle packed with explosives into the Hilton Hotel at Taba, near the Israeli border, and detonated another bomb at the nearby resort of Ras A-Satan. Another 88 people were killed in July 2005 in coordinated suicide bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the peninsula.

Suspicion immediately fell on Al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the two previous attacks.

One Egyptian analyst said it was probably the work of local Islamic extremists loosely connected to Osama bin Laden, who had warned in a new audio tape released on Sunday of a long war with what he called a Crusader-Zionist campaign against Islam.

''I believe this is the work of small local cells connected with Al Qaeda," Amr Shoubaki, an expert on Islamist groups at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo, said in a television interview.

''Their goal is to damage the Egyptian economy and to express anger and frustration at the arrest by the Egyptian authorities of 4,000 people since the attacks in Taba and Sharm el Sheikh," Shoubaki said. ''There is a mushrooming of cells in Sinai. Their main goal is revenge."

Egypt relies heavily on foreign tourism and is one of the world's most popular holiday destinations. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family have taken their Christmas vacation in Sharm el-Sheikh for the past four years.

The Egyptian tourism industry was badly hit when Islamic terrorists opened fire on a group of foreign holidaymakers in Luxor in November 1997, killing 71 people, but had shown signs of recovery.

The latest bombings came only five days after Egyptian authorities announced the dramatic discovery and arrest of a large Islamic terror cell.

''Security forces recently arrested 22 people who were active in the secret organization called al-Taifa al-Mansur [The Victorious Sect]. The terror activists were arrested in various neighborhoods in Cairo and south of the Egyptian capital," the Egyptian interior ministry announced in a statement broadcast April 19 on state television.

''The accused planned to carry out terrorist operations against tourism sites, a strike against the natural gas pipeline around Cairo, and other sensitive sites through the placing of devices. They also examined the possibility of striking Muslim religious figures and Copts, as well as youths in entertainment districts. The heads of the organizations communicated with foreign elements in order to train activists abroad," said the statement.

Israeli military analyst Zeev Schiff, writing on the website of the Hebrew-language daily Haaretz, said yesterday's attacks illustrated Egypt's failure to halt Al Qaeda activity in the Sinai wilderness.

''The radical Islamic terror organization clearly continues to operate adjacent to the border with Israel," wrote Schiff. ''It also smuggles explosive material from the same area. It emerged recently that Al-Qaeda is also trying to set up a base in the Gaza Strip so as to infiltrate from there into Israel to carry out attacks."

Shalom Cohen, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said there were no Israelis among the dead, probably because the blasts came several days after the end of the Passover holiday, when an estimated 25,000 Israeli tourists traveled to Sinai despite previous attacks and a stark warning from Danny Arditi, head of the Israeli Government Counter-Terrorism Bureau, that there was intelligence indicating impending attacks or kidnappings.

''The warnings in our hands lead to small organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda in one way or another," Arditi told the Israeli news website Ynet. ''A month ago we issued a travel warning to Israelis against traveling to Egypt, including Sinai, following relatively reliable intelligence on intentions to carry out terror attacks against foreign and Israeli tourists."

Following the blasts, emergency services in the Israeli resort of Eilat were placed on alert and the border with Egypt was closed. Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert telephoned Mubarak to express condolences and offer logistical support.

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