An Oct. 9 article inaccurately characterized the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. It is a harvest festival. (Published 10/12/04)
Israeli and Egyptian investigators said Friday that they believe a Peugeot sport-utility vehicle crammed with more than 400 pounds of explosives caused Thursday's devastating blast at the Taba Hilton, which killed at least 30 people, ripped the front rooms off the 11-story hotel and tossed the mangled wreckage of another car into the middle of a banquet hall.
Rescue workers using cranes, bulldozers and chain saws worked late into the night Friday in search of more bodies in the debris of the Red Sea resort hotel, which had been packed with vacationers from Israel, Russia and Egypt. One woman's bloodied remains were found in a bathtub that had plunged from the eighth floor to the ground.
Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, said the bombing, which was far more powerful than the suicide bombings employed against Israelis by Palestinian guerrillas during the last four years of conflict, bore the earmarks of an al Qaeda operation.
"It's not the kind of attack that we know comes from Palestinian terror organizations," Boim told reporters at the Israeli border, just a block from the hotel, a frequent meeting place for Middle East peace negotiators and a popular destination for Israeli and Russian tourists. "In my opinion, it fits more with attacks by international terror groups like al Qaeda or branches of it."
In late 2002, al Qaeda asserted responsibility for the car bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed 15 people, including three Israeli tourists. Five minutes before that attack, assailants fired two shoulder-held missiles at a Boeing 757 Arkia Israeli Airlines charter plane bound for Tel Aviv as it took off from Mombasa's airport. The missiles missed their target.
Israeli officials also were investigating two blasts reported at about the same time Thursday night at the resort of Ras Shytan, about 30 miles south of Taba, part of the string of beach destinations that Egypt calls the Red Sea Riviera. Five people were killed and an estimated 38 injured in those explosions, according to Egyptian hospital officials.
More than 100 people were wounded in the Taba Hilton blast, Israeli and Egyptian authorities said.
The reports of the multiple bombings sent thousands of frightened Israelis -- most of them on foot -- streaming out of the beach resorts and into Israel, cutting short vacations over the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which commemorates the ancient Israelites' flight from Egypt. On the crowded highway leading north to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, cars loaded with camping gear and surfboards were sandwiched between ambulances and packed tourist buses.
At the Taba Hilton, the charred devastation of the once-elegant lobby, bars and restaurants conveyed the horror that interrupted a carefree night at 9:45 p.m. In the main restaurant, black dust covered half-eaten meals. Sheets and blankets knotted together hung from a third-floor balcony, evidence of an attempt to escape the burning building in the aftermath of the explosion.
Ali Mustafa, 28, a hotel cook, said that as he fled the collapsing building Thursday night, "I saw part of a leg and an arm in the swimming pool."
Twenty rooms at the front of the hotel plunged into the lobby below. Entire bathrooms, bedrooms and wardrobe closets smashed to the ground, burying an estimated 10 to 30 people, according to Israeli search-and-rescue workers. The workers said that they expect recovery efforts to continue at least two more days but that they have no hope of finding anyone alive.
Though the identities of many victims remained unknown Friday night, Israeli and Egyptian rescue and hospital officials said the dead included seven Egyptians, five Israelis and one Russian. Seven members of the hotel staff were killed, according to co-workers.
Meanwhile, survivors of the two explosions at Ras Shytan said a suicide bomber driving a taxi apparently detonated the vehicle as it approached the dining room of the Moon Island Resort. Two Egyptians -- the hotel's assistant chef and buffet manager -- were killed, survivors said. Another Egyptian and two Israelis later died of their wounds, according to Mohammed Naggar, general manager of the provincial Health and Population Department.
Across Egypt on Friday, major tourist attractions such as the Giza pyramids and the Valley of the Kings in Luxor were closed to the public, and police tightened security around other major sites. The attacks are likely to deal a blow to Egypt's $4.6 billion tourism industry, which had been thriving in recent years.
Israeli officials initially had expressed annoyance Thursday night at the slow response to the attack by Egypt, which they said seemed unprepared to cope with the scale of the disaster. Egypt first shut the border when a wave of panicked Israelis fled from the burning hotel and tried to return to Israel, many without passports or personal belongings. Later, Israeli fire and rescue teams were held at the border and not permitted to cross into Egypt to help find and evacuate the wounded. About 4 a.m., in an agreement with Egypt, the Israeli military was given command of the overall response to the disaster, but soldiers from Israel's Home Front Command were barred from entering the hotel until about 8 a.m., officials said.
"We could have gotten there sooner and probably saved more lives," one exasperated Israeli official said.
"This was just a travesty, because these were four critical hours," Israeli national fire chief Shimon Romah told Israel Radio.
After several calls between the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers, operations became smoother, and Israel was allowed to bring in two large cranes to move debris. About 20 Israeli buses and several ambulances were permitted to drive down the coast to pick up Israeli tourists who wanted a ride home.
Israel captured the Sinai from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war but returned it as part of the Camp David peace agreement signed in 1979. But since the start of the Palestinians' uprising against Israel in September 2000, which prompted Egypt to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, the two countries' relations have been frosty.
Recently, however, there had been a slight thaw. Egypt has played a key mediation role between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israeli officials made it clear Friday that although they were at first frustrated by Egypt's slow response, they were grateful for its cooperation as operations progressed.
A statement by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Abul Gheit, had called and "apologized for delays and explained that Egypt was not used to dealing with events like the series of attacks that took place."
The last major terrorist attack in Egypt was in 1997, when Muslim guerrillas killed 58 foreign tourists in Luxor.
In a statement, Prime Minster Ariel Sharon said that he spoke with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and thanked him for his country's help, and both men noted "that terrorism is the main danger to the free world, and that it must be fought together wherever it may be."
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said about 15,000 Israelis had gone to the Sinai Peninsula for the Jewish holiday, ignoring a travel advisory issued last month that warned against going to the Sinai because of possible terrorist attacks. Dozens of small hotels and campgrounds line the 110-mile coastline between Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai, and most cater overwhelmingly to Israeli tourists drawn by the mountainous coast, rugged inland deserts, coral reefs, and pristine waters filled with exotic fish.
"All the security organizations issued warnings. Unfortunately, people didn't listen to them," Education Minister Limor Livnat told Israel Radio. On Friday, Sharon called on all Israelis to leave the Sinai immediately, Army Radio reported.
Researcher Samuel Sockol in Taba, correspondent John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem and special correspondent Jill Carroll in Cairo contributed to this report.