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Blasts kill 35 on Egypt-Israeli border
Updated: 2004-10-08 08:04

An explosion tore through a resort hotel in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula where Israelis were vacationing at the end of a Jewish holiday Thursday night, killing at least 35 people and wounding more than 160, officials said.

An unidentifed injured woman is helped from an ambulance outside the Joseftal hospital in Eilat, southern Israel October 7, 2004 in this frame grab taken from video footage.  [Reuters]
Israeli security officials said a car bomb caused the explosion, which was followed by two smaller blasts at other tourist sites in the Sinai. Witnesses gave reports that car bombs caused all three, but Egyptian officials said they had no evidence of terrorism.

The huge blast collapsed a 10-story wing of the luxury Hilton hotel built by Israel when it controlled Taba from 1967 to 1989.

Israelis described a chaotic scene as the explosion brought the top floors of the hotel crashing into the lobby.

Meir Frajun said his three children were playing one floor below the lobby when the blast tore through the building. He went down but found only two of them.

"Everything was filled with smoke," Frajun told The Associated Press after crossing into the nearby Israeli resort of Eilat. "We were hysterically looking for the child. In the end we found him sitting outside with an Arab guest of the hotel."

An unidentifed injured child is helped from an ambulance outside the Joseftal hospital in Eilat, southern Israel October 7, 2004 in this frame grab taken from video footage. [Reuters]
Four hours after the blast, Israel's military took command of the scene, according to the army spokeswoman, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, but there were delays in sending Israeli forces and rescue workers across the tense border.

Israel Radio reported early Friday that at least 35 people were killed in the blast.

The explosions came a month after the Israeli government urged citizens not to visit Egypt, citing a "concrete" terror threat to tourists in an area. The warning, issued Sept. 9 by the counterterrorism center in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, identified the Sinai Peninsula as the target of a potential attack.

The initial blast, about 10 p.m., rocked the Hilton hotel in the Taba resort, only yards from the Israeli border.

"The whole front of the hotel has collapsed. There are dozens of people on the floor, lots of blood," witness Yigal Vakni told Army Radio. "I am standing outside of the hotel, the whole thing is burning and they have nothing to put it out with."

A spokesman for the rescue workers, Yerucham Mendola, said others were trapped in the debris.

A view from the Hilton Taba hotel in Egypt next to the Egyptian border in the Sinai peninsula in this August 2004 file photo. [AP]
A car rental manager at the Hilton, Mohammed Saleh, said he was in the storeroom and couldn't see where the explosion originated but that several people at the hotel claimed it was caused by a car bomb outside the reception area. Some witnesses reported seeing the wreckage of a car.

Just before midnight, two smaller blasts struck the area of Ras Shitan, a camping area near the town of Nuweiba south of Taba, witnesses said. Egyptian hospital officials said four people were killed in those explosions, and Israel's Channel 10 TV said two Israelis died.

Amsalem Farrag, whose uncle and cousin own camps in Ras Shitan, said both told him that Israeli cars exploded outside their camps. The two blasts were only five seconds apart, he said. He said the camps were full of vacationing Israelis.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility posted on Islamic Web sites, where al-Qaida-linked and inspired militant groups often post threats and claims. However, contributors to those sites praised the explosions and linked them to a recent videotape said to have been issued by al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.

That tape, aired by Al-Jazeera television on Oct. 1, called for militants to organize and attack countries that had given Israel "means of survival." The tape also urged holy warriors to fight Israelis and Americans before they enter Egypt.

Egyptian government spokesman Magdy Rady linked the blasts to the Israeli military operation against the Palestinians in the neighboring Gaza Strip, where 84 Palestinians have been killed in an Israeli offensive that began on Sept. 29 to stop militants from firing homemade rockets into Israel.

"I think the explosions are very related to what is going on in Gaza," Rady told AP. "We condemn these attacks, which have harmed many people."

"I think it is very probable that there is a link between these three explosions," he added. "It is very unlikely they happened by chance."

The security adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Jibril Rajoub, told Al-Jazeera television that no Palestinian factions were responsible for the explosions.

"We understand the sensitivity of moving the battle with the Israelis outside the Palestinian territories; I am assuring that there is no relationship between any Palestinian factions and the explosions in Egypt," he said.

Egypt upgraded a security alert at the airports in Cairo and in the southern tourist cities of Luxor, Hurghada and Aswan. Police were searching cars coming in and out of Luxor and Hurghada and there was a heavy police presence around hotels.

Israel's Army Radio reported that Egyptian policemen fired in the air at the Taba border crossing as dozens of Israelis tried to break through to get home. The report said the crossing was closed except for rescue vehicles.

Reporters from the Israeli side were unable to reach the scene, and no TV images were available several hours after the blast.

Yaron, the Israeli army spokeswoman, said Israeli Brig. Gen. Efi Idan "took command over the event in Taba" four hours after the blast. She said, however, "We still have some trouble in sending over all of the forces and their equipment to Taba."

An Israeli foreign ministry spokeswoman said that Israel will help evacuate any of the 12,000 to 15,000 Israelis who wish to leave the Sinai. Israeli radio reported a nationwide call went out for surgeons to get to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, across the border from Taba.

Rady said at least 160 were injured in the Taba blast, and another seven Egyptians were injured in the Ras Shitan explosions. Israel's rescue service said it evacuated 103 injured to Israel.

An official at Taba Hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his institution had taken in 25 bodies from the Taba explosion and two more from Ras Shitan. An official at the Nuweiba hospital said two more bodies arrived there.

Egyptians reportedly did not at first allow Israeli rescuers to enter the country but later relented after Sharon instructed his diplomats to contact the Egyptians and expedite the crossing. The two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, but relations have been chilly as a result of Israeli military actions in Palestinian areas.

Taba is the main crossing between Israel and Egypt and the gateway for thousands of Israelis who travel to the hotels and resorts on the Red Sea. Thursday was the last day of the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot, when thousands of Israelis vacation in the Sinai.

Egyptians also were in the midst of a long holiday weekend marking the anniversary of the start of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, so popular resort towns along the Sinai coast were packed.

Egypt has long struggled with Islamic militants interested in overthrowing the secular government, but has contained the threat with periodic crackdowns and by allowing Islamists some political activity.

The last major militant strike in Egypt was the 1997 massacre of 58 foreign tourists by Islamic extremists in the southern resort town of Luxor.

Rady said the explosions are sure to have a negative effect — at least temporarily — on Egypt's tourism industry, one of the country's economic mainstays.

"There will be damage definitely to the tourism in the area," he said, "but I hope it will not last long."

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