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Blasts Kill 23 in Egyptian Resort Town

April 25, 2006|Laura King and Hossam Hamalawy | Special to The Times

DAHAB, Egypt — A series of explosions ripped through this Egyptian resort town Monday night, killing at least 23 people, injuring more than 60 and raising suspicions that Islamist militants had once again taken aim at the tourist-filled Sinai peninsula.

The three near-simultaneous blasts, which centered on a hotel quarter packed with restaurants, nightclubs and bars, shattered the balmy desert evening just after 7, when the streets of the seaside town were packed with foreign tourists and Egyptian visitors strolling, shopping and dining.

Hours after the explosions, blood and bloody footprints still stained the streets of the market area in Dahab's old town. A baby stroller with one bloodstained shoe was abandoned in front of the Ghazala supermarket, where one of the bombs struck.

"I picked up the baby, a foreign child, from this stroller, but he was dead already," said Walid Sayed, 25, who has worked in the market district for seven years. "We left this stroller here so everyone can see what these criminals did."

Egypt's Interior Ministry said that the dead included 20 Egyptians and three foreigners and that about two-thirds of those hurt were Egyptians.

Witnesses reported chaotic scenes of screaming victims, billowing smoke, and, in some cases, long waits for emergency help to arrive. Small local hospitals and clinics were quickly overwhelmed with the wounded.

Most of the seriously injured were taken to the larger town of Sharm el Sheik, a Red Sea resort that was targeted by militants in an attack in July that killed at least 64 people. Nine months before that, nearly three dozen people were killed in similar blasts that hit the resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan, close to the Israeli border.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for Monday's attack, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak described it as an act of terror.

"The president stressed the need to ... hunt down those responsible for this wicked terrorist act so that they pay the penalty by force of law," the state-run Middle East News Agency said.

The attacks also drew condemnation from President Bush, who called them a "heinous act against innocent civilians."

Denunciations came as well from the Hamas-led Palestinian government, which last week refused to condemn a suicide bombing against Israelis in Tel Aviv, carried out by the militant group Islamic Jihad. Nine people were killed in that attack in addition to the bomber.

Dahab, a onetime Bedouin village on the Gulf of Aqaba about 70 miles south of the Israeli border, draws a low-key and eclectic crowd that includes scuba divers, European sun-seekers and backpackers looking to escape the package-tour atmosphere of Sharm el Sheik, a short drive to the south.

The blasts occurred during Egypt's five-day national springtime festival of Sham el Nessim, and also fell on Easter weekend for Christians who follow Eastern rites, including Egypt's Coptic Christians.

The attack coincided as well with the height of the tourist season in the Sinai, which typically sees a rush of foreign visitors before blistering summer temperatures set in.

Night watchman Mukhlis Abdel Nabbi, 61, sobbed as he recounted what he had seen. He was about 30 yards from one of the blasts. "There was a big explosion followed right away by two more," he said. "There was fire and terrible smoke. People ran right and left -- they didn't know where to go. Bodies were everywhere."

One of the explosions hit close to the Khaleeg Hotel, which was said to have been booked to capacity. More than a dozen people were killed in and near the hotel, the Associated Press reported, citing Dr. Said Issa, who heads the area rescue squad.

Egyptian authorities blamed the two previous major attacks in the Sinai during the last 18 months on local militants without ties to international organizations. However, intelligence agencies in other countries said they suspected involvement by Al Qaeda.

Until recent years, Dahab was the province mainly of young backpackers who flocked to its inexpensive beach-hut encampments. But scruffy accommodations have lately been supplanted by expensive resorts frequented by European tourists.

Israel initially closed its border with Egypt in the wake of Monday's explosions, but it allowed returning Israelis and other travelers to enter and dispatched a fleet of ambulances to the frontier to treat any arriving wounded. Israel said it had offered to send medical assistance to Dahab but received no immediate reply from Egyptian authorities.

Traffic was reported to have backed up at the main crossing point, just south of the Israeli city of Eilat. The Sinai peninsula is a popular destination for Israelis, despite repeated government warnings against travel there.

Visits peaked during the Passover holiday, which ended last week, but even so, about 1,700 Israelis were in Sinai at the time of the attack. Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, had this advice for compatriots: "Go home."

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