Three suicide bombers crashed a vehicle packed with explosives into an Israeli-owned resort hotel on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast today, killing themselves and 12 other people, only five minutes after two antiaircraft missiles were fired -- unsuccessfully -- at an Israeli airliner taking off for Tel Aviv with a load of homeward-bound tourists.
The hotel blast, which also injured about 80 people, marked the second major terrorist attack on Kenyan soil in four years, following an August 1998 explosion that killed more than 200 people, almost all Kenyans, and devastated the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the capital, 300 miles northwest of here. Combined with the apparently coordinated missile attack at Mombasa's nearby airport, the beachside bombing renewed fears that Islamic extremists still have a foothold in East Africa despite the year-old U.S. campaign against terrorism.
Citing intelligence reports, Kenyan and Israeli officials said they suspect today's strike was carried out by people associated with al Qaeda, the network founded by Osama bin Laden, accused of organizing the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and on the Pentagon. U.S. officials in Washington cautioned, however, that it was too early to say with certainty that al Qaeda was involved, and they promised U.S. help in tracking down whoever was responsible.
An unknown group calling itself the Government of Universal Palestine in Exile, the Army of Palestine issued a statement in Beirut, asserting it carried out the bombing and the unsuccessful missile attack. The statement said the strikes were designed to mark the anniversary of the Nov. 29, 1947, U.N. decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, which led to the birth of Israel six months later.
A U.S. military source said that the bombing, along with a similar attack at a resort in Bali, Indonesia, on Oct. 12, shows how al Qaeda sympathizers or like-minded extremists have shifted their focus to "soft" or low-security targets instead of embassies, military installations and large buildings that are more heavily guarded. The site of today's bloodshed, the Paradise Hotel, in a village 15 miles north of here, was such a target -- the destination for a steady stream of holiday-makers, many of them Israeli, in Kenya to enjoy the beaches and water sports around Mombasa.
The chaos at the Paradise Hotel began about 8:35 a.m., Kenyan police said, when a green four-wheel drive vehicle that had circled the hotel for 10 minutes picked up speed and broke through the gate. One man, wearing a belt with a bomb, got out and blew himself up inside the lobby, said Yehuda Sulami, the hotel director. The two others detonated the vehicle in front of the building, Sulami said.
A hotel employee, Alex Nyoka, said the men in the vehicle, whom he noticed while they were circling, had light brown skin and curly black hair, leading him to speculate they might be Arabs.
"It was like a time bomb, bits exploding everywhere like a nuclear light shinning," said Suraj Shah, a 31-year-old shopkeeper who rents diving equipment to tourists. "When we heard the explosions they told everyone to run to the beach. 'Run!' People just stood on the beach crying, bleeding, watching everything on fire."
Hours after the blast, trees around the hotel were still burning and bodies were still being carried out, some of them badly burned. They were wrapped in blue blankets, which bomb experts stepped carefully over as they sorted through the metal pieces. A human jaw rested on the ground. Villagers came to help pick up the pieces of metal, pointing out bomb parts that blew past the hotel grounds. A breakfast table was still set, as if ready for people to sit down, but the food on the plates was burned.
The victims were nine Kenyans, some of whom were performing a traditional dance in front of the hotel for tourists, two Israeli brothers -- Dvir Anter, 13, and Noy Anter, 12 -- from a Jewish settlement on the West Bank called Ariel, and an Israeli man, police and Red Cross workers said.
"There was a terrible explosion. Then there were children looking for parents and parents looking for children. There was blood everywhere," said Sulami, who sat in a wheelchair with two cell phones on his lap, fielding calls from Israel. "This was our place, we felt secure in Mombasa. We have lost everything."
The 140-bed resort provided long stretches of beach, clear blue water, camel rides and hair braiding, specializing in Israeli tourists seeking a respite from the fighting in their own country and adjacent Palestinian territories. It was a major employer for nearby Kenyan villagers, who said that beginning six years ago they were trained to drive, work computers and answer phones.
Some also worked as performers doing dances for the planeloads of Israelis who arrived in groups every Thursday.
Kenyans in the village this evening said the carnage would deliver a devastating blow to their already weak economy. It is unfair, they complained, that innocent Kenyans would again have to die for causes they had nothing to do with. Then they started shouting against Arabs, some of whom have settled here and own stores in the city: "We love America," they yelled. "Go away al Qaeda."
For many Kenyans, the bombings brought back painful memories of the Nairobi bombing in 1998. That same day the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was also attacked, killing 10 people. U.S. investigators secured indictments against bin laden and alleged al Qaeda operatives in the attacks.
For U.S., Israeli and Kenyan officials, the bombing was a reminder of Africa's continued role in the war on terrorism. Hundreds of U.S. Navy and Marine troops are stationed around Mombasa, and they planned land and sea exercises here next week. The U.S. military is also building up an installation in Djibouti, about 1,200 miles north of here.
U.S. officials have said terrorist cells may be active in Mombasa, which is largely Muslim. One U.S. military source said that the attacks could have come from groups based in Somalia, just to the north, which are being tracked in Mombasa. Islamic militant groups had warned of an attack in Kenya a week ago in Internet chat rooms and in e-mails, according to Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammad, a London-based bin Laden sympathizer. Some Kenyans and Israelis said they had heard about the warnings and had been worried since Sept. 11. "We knew there were tensions," said Hamel Ahorn, an Israeli who owns the Calipsa Village Hotel across from the Paradise. "The other day I saw a guy wearing an Osama bin Laden T-shirt and thought: What is this, in Kenya?"
Zalman Shoval, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, said officials there do not have concrete information on who carried out the attack but speculate it was carried out by people with a strategy "to disrupt normal life wherever, to disrupt any possibility of a new return to the peace process here, and perhaps to make life more difficult for the United States with regard to Iraq."
"I cannot say in any definitive fashion whether it is al Qaeda, as the Kenyan officials said they believe, but there are indications because of modus operandi, and they have operated before in that part of the world," he added. "One cannot rule out the possibility that this local al Qaeda cell, if it was al Qaeda, was acting as a sort of subcontractor to Palestinian terrorists. But all these things will have to be looked at."
Sharon said he has assigned Mossad, Israel's external intelligence agency, to investigate the attack and find out who carried it out. "Our hand will reach them," said Sharon's defense minister, retired Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz. "If anyone doubted that the citizens of the state of Israel cannot stand up to the killers of children, this doubt will be removed."
Addressing the jetliner incident, Jesse Mituki, a Kenyan police spokesman, said the Boeing 757 from Arkia Israeli Airlines was just lifting off when the missiles were fired. State-run Kenyan television reported that police later found at least one launcher for a SAM-7 shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile near the airport.
At a news conference on his arrival at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, the plane's captain, Rafi Marek, said that shortly after takeoff, "at a very low altitude, we felt a slight blow to the plane. My first association, from my experience, was that a small bird had hit the plane." However, he said, "Immediately afterward, we noticed two trails of white smoke crossing in back of us, on the left side of the plane, that disappeared within a few seconds."
Some members of the flight crew suspected the aircraft had been fired upon, he said, so they ran checks to ensure that all the plane's systems were operating normally, and they notified flight control in Mombasa that they were continuing on to Tel Aviv.
"Initially, we were not sure," Marek said. "However, after we heard about what had happened in the hotel in Mombasa, we thought the two incidents might have been related."
Israeli Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told reporters the missile attack was "a very serious escalation of international terrorism."
"Today this is directed against Israeli planes in Mombasa," he said, "and may I say that if the forces of terror and the terrorist states are not dismantled, they will be directed at the planes of states and countries and nationalities worldwide."
Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem and staff writer Howard Kurtz in Washington contributed to this report.