Egyptian resort attacks were highly coordinated, investigators say
Monday, July 25, 2005
SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt -- The bombers who carried out Egypt's worst-ever terrorist attack appear to have entered this Red Sea resort in pickup trucks loaded with explosives that were hidden under vegetables, security officials said Sunday. Police were searching for three suspects believed to have survived the bombings.
One truck headed for the luxury Ghazala Gardens hotel. There, one man planted a bomb in a suitcase in a parking lot, while another slammed the vehicle into the Ghazala hotel's reception area, the security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
As people fled the Ghazala attack, the suitcase exploded and killed at least seven people, said the officials.
A second truck, on a road leading to another major hotel, got stuck in traffic in the Old Market -- an area frequented by Egyptian workers in the resort area on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Two militants inside abandoned the vehicle, apparently setting a timer, and the blast detonated soon after, the officials said.
Before the attacks, the militants rubbed serial numbers off the trucks' engines, the officials said. Such serial numbers had been a key clue Egyptian investigators had used to track down those behind similar vehicle bombings last October against two resorts further north in the Sinai Peninsula, Taba and Ras Shitan.
According to local hospitals, Saturday's pre-dawn bombings killed at least 88 people -- both Egyptians and foreigners; Egypt's Health Ministry put the death toll at 64. Hospitals said the ministry count does not include a number of sets of body parts.
One official said he believed the man who planted the suitcase came separately, not in the attack truck, and he said police were looking for more than three people, though he would not elaborate.
Investigators were also examining whether the suicide bomber who set off the blast at the Ghazala was one of five suspects still at large from the October bombings.
Police took DNA samples from the parents of the five Taba suspects to compare with bodies found at the Ghazala, a police official said in el-Arish, where the parents were briefly detained.
With fears the attacks will devastate one of the strongest engines of the vital tourism industry, some 1,000 foreigners and Egyptians who work in Sharm el-Sheik marched down its main hotel strip chanting slogans against terrorism in English, Arabic, Italian and German.
Decked out in surf trunks, dive-shop T-shirts and hotel uniforms, they vowed the long flourishing resort would survive. The march passed workers still sweeping up shattered glass in front of the Ghazala, where the reception lobby was flattened by one of two truck bombs used in Saturday's pre-dawn attacks.
In the October attacks, car bombs hit hotels in Taba and Ras Shitan -- resorts near the Israeli border -- nearly simultaneously, killing 34 people. Egyptian authorities portrayed those bombings as an extension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than a homegrown Islamic militant movement or an al-Qaida-linked operation. They said a Palestinian who died in the attacks had recruited Bedouins and Egyptians to plot the bombings.
But the sophistication of the Sharm bombings -- and their timing on the heels of two rounds of explosions in London -- raised worries of a wider international connection and possible al-Qaida links.
In Washington, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez said he believed both the London and Sharm attacks were organized by al-Qaida. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo confirmed that one American was among the dead in Sharm, and the State Department issued an alert warning Americans to avoid south Sinai.
More than 70 people in Sharm and other parts of Sinai were detained for questioning.
A Polish tourist captured footage of the suitcase blast, obtained by Associated Press Television News. From a nearby rooftop, he was filming the smoke rising from the Ghazala. Seconds later, a bright flash goes off on the right corner of the view. A car is seen moving near the blast, but does not appear to be the cause.
Security officials were also looking at a possible major sweep of Bedouin settlements in the deserts of central and south Sinai, said the police official in el-Arish. Most of those suspected in the Taba blasts were Bedouin, including several people now on trial.
That suggested Egyptian forces could be preparing another wave of arrests like the one that followed the Taba blasts, in which some 3,000 people in Sinai were detained. Some 200 remain in detention, and human rights groups have raised reports of torture and abuse.
Fears of more attacks in Egypt were raised when a small blast went off in Cairo on Sunday, wounding one man. The Interior Ministry said it was not a bomb, saying the man was a collector of "vintage items" and one exploded in his house. But an investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the incident, said he was carrying a bomb in a bag that detonated accidentally, and that police were examining whether he was taking the bomb to a tourist bazaar at the foot of the Pyramids in Giza.
Two rival claims of responsibility have emerged for the Sharm bombings, but neither statement could be authenticated. One was by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades of al-Qaida in Syria and Egypt, which also claimed responsibility for the October bombings. The other was by the previously unknown Holy Warriors of Egypt.
Egyptian workers labored to clean up rubble and twisted metal in the Old Market area and repair damaged souvenir shop fronts and cafes under a sun-soaked sky. Glass from the windows of bomb-ravaged cars still covered streets.
Some 6,000 tourists flew out of Sharm el-Sheik in the first 24 hours following the bombings, about double the number expected, said Tourism Minister Ahmed El Maghraby. Lines continued at the airport Sunday.
Others insisted they would stick out their holiday. They were back on the beaches and shopping in the souvenir shops -- to the relief of storeowners. Bar staff at one resort tried to restore the cheer, flipping drink bottles in the air as they prepared fruit cocktails for guests.
"The purpose of terrorism is they think we will run (but) the answer is no," said Franz Weinlich, a doctor from Frankfurt who spent the day diving and lazing on the beach. "I don't like to dance to the music of terrorism."
Associated Press writers Paul Garwood, Hamza Hendawi and Salah Nasrawi in Cairo contributed to this report.