At least three explosions Saturday ripped through the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, one of Egypt's most popular tourist destinations, killing at least 31 people and wounding dozens more, police and witnesses said.
Residents reached by telephone said the explosions, at least one detonated by a car bomb, were audible miles away. They shattered windows and unleashed pandemonium in the resort, which is crowded with Israeli, European and Egyptian tourists in the hot summer months. Residents said fireballs shot into the nighttime sky, followed by white and gray smoke that hovered over buildings, which sit along the scenic southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry said 31 people were killed and 107 wounded in three explosions. But other officials gave higher tolls. The Arab satellite network al-Arabiya quoted city officials as putting the dead at 49 and said more than a hundred were wounded. Reuters news service, quoting rescue officials, said at least 50 were killed and 136 wounded.
"It's a mess," Mohammed Abbas, who lives near one of the bombing sites, said by phone. "My first impression when I saw the smoke coming from the hotel was that a boiler had exploded. It was so strong. All the glass of the shops and offices were destroyed."
The first explosion struck about 1 a.m. in the resort's Old Market, a place of shops and tourist attractions still crowded late at night, residents and the ministry said. The second struck a few minutes later at the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, a 176-room resort in Naama Bay, and a third explosion tore through a parking lot in the same area, the ministry and witnesses said.
There were conflicting accounts of other explosions. Residents said a blast also struck near the Moevenpick Hotel, and news agencies quoted officials as saying there may have been as many as seven explosions, in what would mark a coordinated campaign in a country that has put a high priority on ensuring security for its lucrative tourist industry.
"The explosions went off one after the other for about 15 minutes," Noha Gaafar, a tourist in Naama Bay, near the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, said in an interview with the Arab network al-Jazeera.
The Ghazala Gardens Hotel appeared to be the hardest hit, with the blast striking its facade and spilling debris into the street. Residents said they believed the blast was caused by a car bomb parked in front of the hotel, near the reception area.
"It's still standing, but the area facing the street is really destroyed," Abbas said.
Residents said the blast that struck the Moevenpick came from a side street. It also was apparently caused by a car bomb but inflicted less damage, they said. The ministry did not confirm that explosion. News agencies quoted police officials as saying that 17 people, all of them Egyptians, were killed at the Old Market as they sat at a crowded outdoor coffee shop.
After the blasts, police flooded into the streets, busy on a weekend night. Ambulances with sirens blaring ferried the wounded to hospitals, and police blocked ways in and out of the resort. The cell phone network in the resort soon became overburdened, adding to anxiety as people found it difficult to call and find out what was going on.
"People panicked and started running away," Abbas said. "There was smoke everywhere. You could see it from any hotel."
"It was like thunder," said another resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh were the deadliest in Egypt since Oct. 7, 2004, when a series of bombings at the Taba Hilton, near Egypt's border with Israel, and two resorts farther south killed 34 people.
Both attacks had followed a period of relative calm in Egypt after the government struggled with an insurgency by Islamic militants through the mid-1990s that targeted security forces and tourists. In the bloodiest attack, assailants killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians in November 1997 at an ancient temple near the tourist town of Luxor in southern Egypt.
Tourism is one of Egypt's main sources of revenue, and the government goes to great lengths to cultivate an image of security in the country. Officials had projected that 8 million tourists might visit Egypt next year. Sharm el-Sheikh, the equivalent of a boomtown along the Sinai's pristine coast and coral reefs, has become particularly popular, drawing European and Israeli tourists. Residents said the resort in recent days had been filled with Israeli Arabs on vacation.
"It's the end of the story," said the resident who spoke on condition of anonymity. "A lot of people are going to be out of jobs, that's for sure. It doesn't look good. All of us who live here work for tourism, and this isn't good for the whole place."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has a holiday villa in the city, and the resort has become a popular venue for official meetings. In February, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met there and agreed on a cease-fire.
In Washington, the Bush administration denounced the bombings as a "deplorable act. We condemn this act in the strongest possible terms. There can be no excuse for targeting innocent civilians," said Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the State Department.
The State Department has been in contact with the Egyptian government both in Cairo and Washington to offer assistance, while the U.S. Embassy in Egypt has set up a task force.
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.