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Death Toll Mounts in Attacks Targeting Israelis in Kenya

Three tourists, nine tribal dancers and three terrorists die in a hotel bombing. Two missiles just miss a nearby jet with 271 people aboard.

November 29, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ and ALISSA J. RUBIN

MSUMARINI, Kenya — The death toll in a suicide car bombing at a resort hotel here climbed to at least 15 people Thursday as officials said one of two missiles fired at the time of the blast came close enough to an Israeli jet taking off nearby to slightly damage the tail.

The two heat-seeking missiles passed by the jet, and the Arkia Charter Co. flight with 271 people on board was able to land safely in Tel Aviv a few hours later.

The car bombing Thursday morning tore through the Paradise hotel, which caters almost exclusively to Israeli tourists, and triggered a fire that severely damaged much of the building. At least nine Kenyans, three Israelis and the three suicide bombers were among the dead, according to police at the scene. The bodies of the Israelis were being returned to Israel today. Two of the victims were brothers, ages 12 and 13. More than 60 people were wounded, some of them seriously.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Army of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attacks in a fax to the media, but government officials in Kenya and Israel, along with terrorism experts, said the operation was well coordinated and bore the trademarks of Al Qaeda or an affiliated group.

"We don't know yet if it's Al Qaeda, but it looks like it," said Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

In Crawford, Texas, President Bush condemned the attacks. "Those who seek peace must do everything in their power to dismantle the infrastructure of terror that makes such actions possible," he said in a statement.

In an apparently separate attack, six Israelis were killed and at least 16 moderately to seriously injured Thursday in the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean when two Palestinian gunmen fired indiscriminately into crowds near the local bus station, which is near a polling site where people were voting in the Likud Party primary.

The attack in Kenya came about 8:30 a.m., as dancers from a Mombasa coastal tribe dressed in tie-dye and grass skirts were welcoming in Swahili arriving guests at the Paradise hotel. Security guards and witnesses said a green Mitsubishi Pajero sport utility vehicle pulled up to the gate but was denied entrance.

The vehicle, carrying three men who appeared to be Arabs, reversed several yards, rammed the gate and sped toward the reception area. One man jumped out of the vehicle, threw what witnesses said were grenades and then blew himself up. Seconds later, the vehicle exploded.

Hotel guests and staff, covered with dust and streaked with blood, ran for the nearby beach as the hotel's thatched roof went up in flames, sending billows of smoke into the air. The fire destroyed most of the hotel.

Police on the scene said they believed that the entire dance troupe was killed in the attack.

"People were screaming, calling for their family members, who were running for the ocean" or the bushes that surround the resort, said Zev Wegh, 54, a graphic designer with Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest daily newspaper, who was vacationing at the resort.

It was the second major terrorist attack in Kenya in recent years. The United States blamed Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network for 1998 truck bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in which 224 people were killed and thousands injured.

The Israeli government immediately flew a medical team to Mombasa to treat and evacuate the wounded. Israeli military Hercules transport aircraft were expected to arrive within hours to evacuate the uninjured Israelis; teams of forensic and bomb experts also were dispatched by the Israeli government.

Although Israelis regularly face suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, they have not been a regular target of recent suspected Al Qaeda attacks. A synagogue in Tunisia was the target of an April terrorist attack for which Al Qaeda took responsibility; 21 people were killed, none of them Israelis.

However, in his most recent statement, Bin Laden deplored Israel's military offensive against the Palestinians and particularly attacks that killed "old people, women and children." Israel has often said it is only trying to protect itself from attacks by Palestinians.

Analysts noted that the hotel and missile attacks were well coordinated and well organized and relied on local knowledge, a trademark of Al Qaeda. Although no one was killed or injured in the missile attack, it was the first time terrorists have used such a tactic, and it points to a previously overlooked area of vulnerability, one that potentially affects tourist destinations all over the world. While many airports in capital cities have broad and tightly secured perimeters, such security measures are rare in smaller tourist destinations.

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