A massive explosion tore off the front of a seaside hotel in the Egyptian resort of Taba late Thursday, killing at least 30 people and injuring more than 100 in what appeared to be a terrorist attack aimed at Israeli tourists, officials said.
The blast occurred at 10 p.m. at the Taba Hilton, a luxury high-rise hotel on the Red Sea surrounded by palm trees and coral reefs, just a few hundred yards over the border from the southern tip of Israel. The hotel, a popular venue for Middle East peace negotiators, was reportedly packed with Israeli tourists celebrating the end of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
News service accounts from the area said two more explosions subsequently rocked the Red Sea resorts of Ras Shytan and Nuweiba, about 40 miles south of Taba, but details were sketchy. One witness interviewed by Israeli television reported that two rockets were fired at his hotel in Ras Shytan; another said there was a huge blast that appeared to be from a car bomb. Egyptian hospital officials cited by the Associated Press said four were killed in the two attacks.
At the Hilton, witnesses described scenes of horror and pandemonium when a huge blast occurred at the front of the hotel, catapulting bodies across the spacious lobby area, which has a large bar, a casino and huge plate-glass windows looking out on a large salt-water pool nestled along the Red Sea. There were reports of large fires burning inside the hotel and people trapped under fallen debris. The Associated Press reported that an entire 10-floor wing collapsed.
There were no official reports about the cause of the blast, but based on accounts from the scene and the extent of the damage, suspicion immediately focused on a possible car bomb detonated at the front of the building.
"The whole front of the hotel has collapsed. There are dozens of people on the floor, lots of blood," said Yigal Vakni, an Israeli tourist interviewed by Israel's Army Radio. "I am standing outside the hotel -- the whole thing is burning and they have nothing to put it out with."
"I was in my room on the fourth floor when suddenly I heard a tremendous explosion," a tourist identified only as Shimon told the Israeli Internet site Ynet. "The explosion was in the entrance of the hotel, where the cars stop to drop off suitcases. All the glass flew everywhere. I saw a lot of injured people, at least two dead people next to the swimming pool."
Svetlana Ahmedallah, 33, said that she was in a room with her mother on the seventh floor when the blast occurred and that the building seemed to collapse. The next thing she knew, Ahmedallah said, she was on the ground.
"I was lying in bed and my mother was in the bathroom when suddenly there was a strong explosion. Everything flew, and I heard my mother shouting for help," Ahmedallah said. She said she and her mother were in Taba on a two-week vacation from their home in Tatarstan in Russia.
Ahmedallah, interviewed at a hospital just across the border from Egypt in Elat, where she was treated for minor injuries, said she apparently flew through a window. She did not know what happened to her mother, but said she assumed her mother had died. "I fell down to the ground on the bed. The whole part of the building collapsed. I don't know what happened."
Egyptian officials said they had no evidence of terrorism, the Associated Press reported. Egyptian security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the explosion occurred among gas tanks in the hotel kitchen, which is next to the casino, where many tourists were at the time.
Egypt put the death toll at 30, and the Interior Ministry said 12 Egyptians were among the dead. Israel Radio reported Friday that at least 35 people were killed.
After the explosion in Taba, many Israelis reportedly dropped everything and fled about 300 yards north to the official Israel-Egypt border crossing. Israeli officials said that after a period of confusion, Egyptian authorities began cooperating with Israeli fire and rescue personnel, allowing ambulances to cross the border to evacuate the wounded and search for those who remained trapped in the debris.
Moshe Moshiko, a fire department spokesman in Elat, said 30 firefighters were allowed to cross into Egypt to help, but others were turned away because they did not have their passports.
"They are trying to put out the fire and save people who are still trapped in the ruins of the hotel," he told Israel's Channel 10 television. "The firefighters are climbing up through the hotel, floor by floor, to save the people inside."
Gideon Meir, a senior official in Israel's Foreign Ministry, said that in conversations with the Egyptian government, Israel had requested that Egypt permit free passage across the border for Israeli citizens and rescue personnel without passports, clearance for Israeli helicopters to fly to the scene of the attacks and permission for as many as 30 buses to travel down the coast to pick up any Israelis who wanted to leave. The Egyptians responded that they would do "their utmost" to help, he said.
The Israel Defense Forces later took control of the scene at Taba. A military convoy including seven ambulances and three buses went to the site in Nuweiba.
Last month, before the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Foreign Ministry issued a travel advisory warning Israeli tourists not to travel to the Sinai Peninsula because of possible terrorist attacks. But officials said they believed that between 12,000 and 15,000 Israeli tourists were in the Sinai on Thursday.
Israeli officials said they had no concrete information about who was behind the strikes. But one senior government official noted the similarities between Thursday's attacks and previous attacks by al Qaeda. He cited in particular the multiple simultaneous strikes in other countries.
"It looks like al Qaeda," he said. "The characteristics of this attack are the same as Bali, Kenya, or even Madrid."
No established groups have asserted responsibility for the bombing, but two previously unknown Islamic groups each said they carried it out. There was no way to confirm the authenticity of the claims.
Elat is one of Israel's most popular resorts, located at the very southern tip of the country where Israel, Egypt and Jordan converge at the end of a small finger of the Red Sea. Joseftal Hospital there was inundated with wounded, said Naomi Halevy, a spokeswoman.
"More people are coming in every minute," she said in a telephone interview. "It's a total mess." Hospital officials reported receiving 112 injured.
There were few reliable reports about the other blasts. Assaf Levy, a tourist who was staying at the Castle Beach Hotel in Ras Shytan, said he was relaxing with friends when suddenly a missile was fired from the long, high mountain range that runs along much of the coast.
"There was fire, a huge explosion, and we all ran outside," he told Israel's Channel 2. "Two minutes later we saw another missile that fell in the parking lot of the Castle Beach. Some people even ran towards the water and got into the sea because they were afraid of the missiles."
Aya Reich, 28, a lawyer from Tel Aviv, said she was dining with about 10 friends at a small beach community called Moon Island when "suddenly there was a strong explosion about 30 meters away from us, and everyone flew, and then a minute later there was another explosion, and we all started running towards the water."
"People were falling on top of each other," said Reich, who was wounded in the foot by shrapnel. "Everyone was hysterical."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Elat and researcher Hillary Claussen contributed to this report.