The Associated Press
TABA, Egypt -- Israeli officials said Friday they believe al-Qaida was probably behind three suicide car bomb attacks targeting Red Sea resorts filled with Israeli tourists, as investigators searched for evidence and rescuers pulled bodies from the twisted wreckage of a five-star hotel and casino.
Thursday night's bombings in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula killed 29 people, according to Israeli authorities, who were leading the rescue effort. Egyptian officials could confirm only 24 dead. More than 100 people were injured, with reports as high as 160.
Using everything from jackhammers and drills to dogs and bare hands, rescuers searched the wreckage of the Taba Hilton, site of the first and by far the deadliest of the bombings. But after turning on flood lamps as darkness fell on Friday, they did not expect to find many more bodies underneath the piles of concrete and metal, and appeared to be losing hope of finding survivors.
The number of missing was unclear. Israeli authorities had a list of about 100 people who had not yet checked in, said Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, head of the Israeli Home Front Command.
Israelis fled the Sinai by the thousands Friday, and authorities across the border in the Israeli city of Eilat put them up in community centers while they arranged to get home. Many tourists complained bitterly about Egyptian authorities who they said initially prevented them from leaving their hotels.
The 10 p.m. explosion at the Hilton sheared outer rooms off a 10-story wing. A hotel employee sleeping on the third floor was blown 10 feet into the air and killed, her blood staining the ceiling. A mother and daughter fell from the seventh floor to the first, a plunge that killed the elder woman. Another woman died after falling two stories in a bathtub. Trees near the hotel were littered with the bodies of charred birds.
The attack was quickly followed by two more car bombings outside beach-bungalow camps south of Taba.
Participants in an emergency meeting of the Israeli Cabinet said the military intelligence chief told them al-Qaida was probably behind the attacks. Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim called Osama bin Laden's terrorist network the most likely suspect.
Egyptian authorities were more cautious. "We have to wait until the investigation is over to make sure if the attack was related to al-Qaida, or any other organization, or not," said Maged Abdel Fattah, spokesman for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In Washington, a U.S. counterterrorism official, discussing intelligence on the condition of anonymity, said American officials suspect -- but aren't certain -- that al-Qaida had a role in the bombings.
The coordinated bombings show a level of sophistication that fits al-Qaida's usual operational style, the official said.
Not ruled out are Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, or local Egyptian militant groups, the official said. One significant Egyptian group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, merged with al-Qaida several years ago; its leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is now bin Laden's top deputy. The Egypt-based Islamic Group also has ties to al-Qaida.
President Bush offered to help Egypt track down those responsible.
"By targeting Muslims and Jews, Egyptians and Israelis, and women and children, the terrorists have shown their total contempt for all human life and for all human values," he said.
There were several claims of responsibility -- including one from an al-Qaida-linked group -- but none appeared credible.
"This is a terrorist attack, but who did it?" asked Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit. "We can't tell, as the investigation has just begun."
The blasts took place at the close of holidays in both Israel and Egypt, when the Sinai's resort towns were packed with tourists, including as many as 15,000 Israelis.
The Taba Hilton was at 95 percent capacity with up to 900 guests and 500 employees inside when a car crashed into the lobby. Officials said the suicide bomber detonated 440 pounds of explosives.
A note on the hotel's Web site Friday read simply: "Closed until further notice."
Within two hours of the attack, two more car bombs detonated nearly simultaneously outside the backpacker-oriented beach huts of Ras Shitan, 35 miles to the south, where many Israeli youths were spending the holiday.
South Sinai Gov. Mustafa Afifi said an Egyptian security guard was suspicious about one of the cars in Ras Shitan and intervened, preventing it from blowing up close to lodgings.
Israeli security sources said all three bombs were suicide attacks.
Officials initially reported at least 30 dead, but scaled back. The Israeli army said Friday night that 29 people were confirmed dead. Egypt's interior minister reported 24.
An official at Taba hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that 24 people were killed, including five Israelis, seven Egyptians and the rest foreigners whose nationalities were not immediately determined. The Israeli fire chief said a female tourist from Russia was among those killed.
At least two Britons were among the wounded, and the Russian Foreign Ministry said an elderly Russian woman apparently was among the dead while eight Russians were injured.
No Americans were reported killed, but two American employees of the U.S. Embassy in Israel and their families were slightly injured.
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, identified Sinai as the target of a potential attack.
Egypt's tourism minister, Ahmed El Maghraby, indicated the attacks were political: "Look at the timing. Look at the choice of place."
He didn't say what he was referring to, but other officials drew links to the Israeli military operation against the Palestinians in the neighboring Gaza Strip, where more than 80 Palestinians have been killed in an Israeli offensive that began Sept. 29.
During Friday prayers at the Al-Quds Mosque in the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon, pro-Palestinian imam Sheik Maher Hammoud said the attacks didn't surprise him.
"The Taba operation comes as a natural and expected response to (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's military operations, which nobody in the world community has condemned or tried to stop," he said.
Interior Minister Habib el-Adly said Egypt would not allow a return of terrorism, a reference to the nation's harsh but effective crackdown in recent decades on Islamic insurgents. The last major Islamic militant strike in Egypt was the 1997 massacre of 58 foreign tourists in the southern resort town of Luxor.
Egypt heightened security at its airports Friday. Police searched cars coming in and out of Luxor and Hurghada, two southern tourist destinations, and there was a heavy police presence around hotels. In Cairo, hotel security officers appeared more alert.