Blasts kill 30 on Egypt-Israeli border
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By Sarah el Deeb
Oct. 7, 2004 | Three explosions shook popular resorts on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Thursday night as many Israelis vacationed at the close of a Jewish holiday. Officials said at least 30 people were killed and 114 wounded, and witnesses gave unconfirmed reports that all three explosions were caused by car bombs.
The first blast, about 10 p.m., shook 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.
"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 Israel's Army Radio. "I am standing outside of the hotel, the whole thing is burning and they have nothing to put it out with."
"We know of other people trapped under the ruins of the hotel," said rescue worker spokesman Yerucham Mendola.
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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.
However, Egyptian officials said they had no evidence of terrorism.
Egyptian security officials, speaking on 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.
The explosion 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 Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where Taba is located, as the target of a potential attack.
About midnight, two smaller blasts struck the area of Ras 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.
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 claimed it was caused by a car bomb outside the reception area. Some witnesses reported seeing the wreckage of a car.
Amsalem Sarrag, whose uncle and cousin own camps in Ras 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.
Israeli police confirmed at least 30 dead at Hilton blast.
An official at Taba Hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his institution had taken in 27 bodies from the Taba explosion and two more from Ras Shitan. An official at the Nuweiba hospital said two more bodies arrived there. Israeli police said at least 30 were killed in the Taba blast alone.
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 told The Associated Press they had evacuated 39 wounded people 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 Sharon called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, but relations have been chilly as as result of Israeli military actions in Palestinian areas.
Sinai shares a border with the Gaza Strip, where 84 Palestinians have been killed in an Israeli offensive that began on Sept. 29 to stop militants from firing homemade rockets into Israel.
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. Thursday is 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.
Vakni said most of the people at the Hilton were Israeli. A witness told Israel 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."
Taba, a small Red Sea beach resort, was awarded to Egypt by international arbitration in 1989.
Israel had controlled the tiny Red Sea resort since the 1967 Middle East war, and an Israeli-owned, $41 million hotel complex there has become a favorite winter vacation spot.
Egypt had demanded return of the land for years, and the dispute was a sore point between the nations. It began when Israel refused to hand over Taba in 1982 when it left the Sinai peninsula under terms of the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Egypt peace treaty.
In 1986, the two sides agreed to take the dispute to an international arbitration panel in Geneva for a binding ruling. The panel drew a border that put Taba in Egyptian territory.
The five-member panel in Geneva awarded the border pillar closest to the resort to Egypt.