- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

CAIRO — An explosion tore through an Egyptian resort hotel where Israelis were vacationing at the end of a Jewish holiday last night, killing at least 35 persons and wounding more than 160, officials said.

Two smaller blasts were reported later at other tourist sites in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and witnesses gave unconfirmed reports that car bombs caused all three blasts.

The first explosion, at about 10 p.m. local time, rocked the Hilton hotel in the Taba resort, only yards from the Israeli border, and Israel’s Army Radio quoted Israeli security officials as saying they were convinced it was a car bomb.

However, Egyptian officials said they had no evidence of terrorism.

“The whole front of the hotel has collapsed. There are dozens of people on the floor, lots of blood. It is very tense,” witness Yigal Vakni told Army Radio. “I am standing outside of the hotel, the whole thing is burning and they have nothing to put it out with.”

A spokesman for rescue workers, Yerucham Mendola, said others were trapped in the debris.

The explosion could be heard and felt strongly a mile away, said Selma Abu el-Dahab, who works at another Taba hotel. She said a worker from her hotel returned from the Hilton and told of the blast before collapsing.

Egyptian security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Taba explosion occurred among gas tanks in the kitchen of the hotel, which is next to the casino where many tourists were at the time of the blast.

A car-rental manager at the Hilton, Mohammed Saleh, said he was in the storeroom at the Hilton when the first blast occurred and couldn’t see where the explosion originated, but said several people at the hotel said it was caused by a car bomb outside the reception area. Some witnesses reported seeing the wreckage of a car.

About midnight, two smaller blasts struck the area of Ras al Shitan, a camping area near the town of Nuweiba south of Taba, witnesses said.

“I heard one very big explosion coming from Taba direction and then, after a while, I heard two smaller explosions from Nuweiba,” near Ras al Shitan, human rights activist Abdel Raziq said by telephone.

Amsalem Sarrag, whose uncle and cousin own camps in Ras al Shitan, said both told him that Israeli cars exploded outside their camps. The two blasts were only five seconds apart, he said.

He said the camps were full of vacationing Israelis, but he had no information on the number of casualties.

The explosions came a month after the Israeli government urged citizens not to visit Egypt, citing a “concrete” terror threat to tourists in an area. The warning, issued on Sept. 9 by the counterterrorism center in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office, identified the Sinai Peninsula, where Taba is located, as the target of a potential attack.

After the explosions, Israel’s Army Radio reported that Egyptian policemen were shooting in the air at the Taba crossing as dozens of Israelis were trying to break through to get home. The report said the crossing was closed except for rescue vehicles.

An Israeli foreign ministry spokeswoman said Israel will help evacuate any of the 12,000 to 15,000 Israelis who wish to leave the Sinai.

Mr. Vakni said most of the people at the Hilton were Israeli. A witness told Israeli radio the hotel was filled with Israeli Arabs and Russian tourists from Moscow.

“I was in the casino when it happened,” he said. “There was a massive explosion and the left wall came down. People started to run around like crazy.”

An official at Taba Hospital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said his institution had taken in 27 bodies from the Taba explosion and two more from Ras al Shitan. An official at the Nuweiba hospital said two more bodies arrived there. Israeli police said at least 35 were killed in the Taba blast alone.

Earlier, Taba Hospital was treating at least 100 injured, and Nuweiba 14. In addition, Israeli medics said they had transferred 22 injured to Israeli hospitals in ambulances and helicopters.

Israeli rescue workers who entered Egypt said they had evacuated 39 wounded persons from the explosion, five of them in serious condition.

Egyptians reportedly did not at first allow Israeli rescuers to enter the country but later relented after Mr. Sharon called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, but Taba was not transferred to Egypt until 1989 when Egypt was awarded the small resort town in international arbitration.

Egyptian-Israeli relations have been chilly as a result of Israeli military actions in Palestinian areas.

Taba is the main crossing between Israel and Egypt and the gateway for thousands of Israelis who travel to the hotels and resorts on the Red Sea. Yesterday was the last day of the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot, when thousands of Israelis vacation in the Sinai.

Egyptians also were in the midst of a long holiday weekend marking the anniversary of the start of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, so popular resort towns along the Sinai coast were packed.

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