Thursday, November 10, 2005

AMMAN, Jordan — Suicide bombers carried out nearly simultaneous attacks on three U.S.-based hotels in the Jordanian capital last night, killing at least 57 persons and wounding 115 in what appeared to be an al Qaeda assault on an Arab kingdom with close ties to the United States.

The explosions hit the Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS and Days Inn hotels just before 9 p.m. local time. One of the blasts occurred inside a wedding hall where 300 guests were celebrating — joined by a man strapped with explosives who had infiltrated the crowd. Black smoke rose into the night after the attacks, and wounded victims stumbled from the hotels.

A State Department official said there was no information on any American casualties.

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood condemned the attacks, saying they were against Islam.

“These are criminal and terrorist acts which no Muslim can accept and which go against our religion,” said Abdel Majid Zuneibat, the head of the Islamic political organization.

“The enemies of the nation will only profit from this crime,” Mr. Zuneibat said in a statement carried on state-run Petra news agency.

A Jordanian security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the press, said the dead included at least three Asians, possibly Chinese.

“We thought it was fireworks for the wedding, but I saw people falling to the ground,” said Ahmed, a wedding guest at the Radisson who did not give his surname. “I saw blood. There were people killed. It was ugly.”

Jordan’s deputy prime minister, Marwan Muasher, said there was no claim of responsibility but that Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was a “prime suspect.”

A U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the strong suspicion is that Zarqawi was involved because of his known animosity for the Jordanian monarchy and because these were suicide attacks, one of his hallmarks.

In February, U.S. intelligence indicated that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was in contact with Zarqawi, enlisting him to conduct attacks outside Iraq, said another U.S. counterterrorism official on the condition of anonymity. Jordan has arrested scores of Islamic militants plotting attacks and has sentenced many militants to death in absentia, including Zarqawi.

The firing of missiles from Aqaba, Jordan, into the Israeli resort of Eilat in August contributed to a sense in Jordan that a terrorist attack was imminent, said Daoud Kuttab, an Amman-based analyst and journalist.

“There was a general expectation that something was going to happen, but nobody knew when,” he said. “Hotels have been in a state of alert for some time. You couldn’t park your car near the hotels for six months now.”

The first blast was reported about 8:50 p.m. at the five-star Grand Hyatt. The explosion occurred in the lobby and shattered its stone entrance.

Steve Olderman of England was attending a business dinner at the hotel, where an information technology conference was held earlier in the day.

“Suddenly, we heard an explosion and the whole hotel filled with smoke, and suddenly we found ourselves outside the hotel,” said Mr. Olderman, who was on the ground floor at the time of the attack.

“We saw bodies lying as we were coming out” of the hotel, said the businessman, who had been staying at the Radisson. “It was pretty horrific. We were sitting beside a huge plate glass window and it just exploded beside us. … We were lucky to get out alive.”

A few minutes after that attack and a short distance away, police reported the explosion at the wedding celebration, which occurred in a reception hall on the ground floor. At least five persons were killed and 20 wounded.

The Radisson is popular with American and Israeli tourists and was a target of several foiled al Qaeda plots, including a conspiracy to attack U.S. and Israeli tourists during the kingdom’s millennium celebrations. Israel’s ambassador to Jordan, Yaakov Hadas, told Israel TV from Amman that there were no reports of Israeli casualties.

The third explosion, at the Days Inn, occurred after a car packed with explosives approached the hotel, Mr. Muasher said. He said the car could not cross a protective barrier and detonated outside. As a result, the number of casualties at the Days Inn was lower, he said.

King Abdullah II cut short his official visit to Kazakhstan and was returning home.

“The hand of justice will get to the criminals who targeted innocent secure civilians with their cowardly acts,” he said.

The date of the attacks, Nov. 9, would be written as 9/11 in the Middle East, which puts the day before the month. A Jordanian government spokesman declined to speculate on what this means. But Jordanian citizens were sending mobile messages that read: “Have you noticed that today is 9-11, similar to America’s 11-9?”

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