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Car bombs hit Egyptian resort

Saturday, July 23, 2005

CAIRO, Egypt -- A series of explosions, including at least four car bombs, struck the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh early Saturday, hitting several hotels packed with European and Egyptian tourists and killing at least 45 people in the deadliest attack in Egypt in nearly a decade.

As many as seven explosions in quick succession starting at 1:15 a.m. shook windows miles away. Smoke and fire rose from Naama Bay, a main strip of beach hotels in the desert city at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, also popular with Israeli tourists, witnesses said.

Dazed tourists milled about the darkened streets as Egyptian rescuers searched for dead and injured. Ambulances sped away with victims.

"There seemed to be a lot of bodies strewn across the road" near one cafe, British policeman Chris Reynolds, visiting from Birmingham, England, told the BBC by telephone. "It was horrendous."

At least four car bombs were used in the attack, said a security official in the operations control room in Cairo monitoring the crisis.

One went off in the driveway of the Ghazala Gardens hotel, a 176-room four-star resort on the main strip of hotels in Naama Bay, said the governor of South Sinai province, Mustafa Afifi.

The Ghazala was "completely burned down, destroyed," Amal Mustafa, 28, an Egyptian who was visiting Sharm with her family, said after driving by the site. Television video of the hotel, a three-story complex, showed parts of the building burned out with walls collapsed.

Another car bomb exploded in the Old Market, an area a few miles away, killing 17 people -- believed to be Egyptians -- sitting at a outdoor coffee shop, the control room official said. Three minibuses were set ablaze. It was not clear if they were carrying passengers, the official said.

Another blast went off near the Movenpick Hotel, said a receptionist there who declined to identify himself.

Although many tourists could have been asleep when the explosions struck, the resort's sidewalk cafes, seafront restaurants and bazaars are usually packed with locals and tourists well into the late summer nights.

Security officials put the toll at 45 killed and about 200 wounded. The Interior Ministry put out a statement putting the toll at 31 people and 107 wounded. Details on the explosions were sketchy, due to the hour they went off and Sharm's remote location.

The dead in the Sharm blasts included British, Russian, Dutch, Kuwaitis, Saudis, Qataris and Egyptians, a security official said. The officials, including the one in the crisis control center, were speaking on condition of anonymity because they were giving information not yet included in the official statement.

President Hosni Mubarak has a residence at a resort several miles outside Naama Bay and spends weeks there at a time in the winter. But during the summer, he stays at a residence in the northern city of Alexandria.

A London police officer, Charlie Ives, who was on holiday, told BBC Television that he was in a cafe about 50 yards away from two of the explosions.

"It was mass hysteria really. We tried to calm people down," he said. He said the blast was so strong, "We were virtually thrown from the cafe."

Another British tourist, Fabio Basone, was in Naama Bay's Hard Rock Cafe when he heard a small explosion, then a larger one.

"We went outside on to the street where we were met with hundreds of people running and screaming in all directions," he told BBC. "I saw the front of a hotel had been blown away. ... There were two bodies on the floor but I don't know if they were dead."

Scores of ambulances from cities in the northern Sinai and the Suez Canal cities of Suez and Ismailiya were headed to Sharm to help with casualties.

Khaled Sakran, a resident, said he saw one explosion from the Old Market. "I saw the saw the fire in the sky," he told The Associated Press. "Right after, I saw a light in the sky and heard another explosion, coming from Naama Bay."

Thousands of tourists are drawn to Sharm for its sun, clear blue water, and coral reefs. It also has been a meeting place where world leaders have tried to hammer out a Mideast peace agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met there in February and agreed to a cease-fire.

Egypt has been the site of several deadly attacks on places frequented by tourists. In October 2004, a series of explosions hit several hotels in the Sinai resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan, about 100 miles northwest along the Gulf of Aqaba coast, killing 34 people. Egyptian authorities said that attack was linked to Israeli-Palestinian violence, prompting a wave of arrests in Sinai.

Saturday's bombings were the deadliest since 1997, when Islamic militants killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians at the Pharaonic Temple of Hatshepsut outside Luxor in southern Egypt.


AP correspondents Sarah El Deeb, Paul Garwood, Nadia Abou El-Magd and Salah Nasrawi in Cairo contributed to this report.


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