Car bombers bring carnage and panic to seaside resort

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Eighty-eight people, including two Britons, were killed and 200 injured when car bombs ripped through shopping and hotel areas in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh yesterday.

Shaken European tourists spoke of mass panic and hysteria as three blasts went off in different parts of the resort, causing carnage in the immediate vicinity and frightened confusion elsewhere.

The attack, Egypt's deadliest terror hit, appeared well co-ordinated. Two car bombs, possibly by suicide attackers, went off simultaneously at 1:15am about two miles apart. A third bomb detonated around the same time near a beachside walkway where tourists often stroll at night.

One blast tore the front off the Ghazala Gardens hotel in Na'ama Bay, the site of most of the resort's luxury hotels. People were feared trapped in the rubble of the lobby. Witnesses said a car broke into the hotel compound and exploded in front of the building. "There was a huge ball of smoke that mushroomed up. It was mass hysteria," Charlie Ives, a London policeman on holiday, told BBC World television.

Among the 23 people critically injured were two British tourists, a 14-year-old girl and a 30-year-old man. They were taken by helicopter to the Maadi military hospital in Cairo. The girl's 20-year-old sister was among three people being treated in Sharm el Sheikh hospital for cuts and bruises. The man had been on holiday with his girlfriend.

Most of the victims were Egyptians but seven non-Egyptians died, including a Czech and an Italian. The injured foreigners included nine Italians, five Saudis, three Britons, a Russian, a Ukrainian and an Israeli Arab. The death toll could rise, rescue workers said. The lobby of the 176-room Ghazala Gardens hotel collapsed into a pile of concrete. After hours of clearing through rubble and metal, emergency workers called off rescue efforts, at least temporarily, around midday.

On the other side of Sharm, in the Old Market, a second car bomb sent a ball of flaming wreckage shooting over a nearby beach and into the sea, littering the sand with body parts. Overturned chairs, broken waterpipes and pools of blood were scattered around a ravaged coffeeshop nearby.

Officials said a car had exploded there but an eyewitness said a man had walked into a crowd with a large travel bag and announced in Egyptian Arabic: "I have a bomb." Some people moved away but others thought he was joking, said the witness, who asked not to be named. Two minutes later an explosion took place.

"I saw a car flying up in the air, people running," a restaurant owner, Yehya Mohammed, said by telephone. "I do not think I will ever forget this in my life. This is a horrible setback for tourism here."

An emergency services official said many wounded were Egyptian workers gathered at a café in the old market. Seventeen of the dead were burnt beyond recognition.

A group claiming links to the al-Qa'ida organisation said it carried out the bombings in retaliation for "crimes committed against Muslims", according to a posting on the internet. The statement, which was not carried on major al-Qa'ida websites, was signed by the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades of the al-Qa'ida Organisation in the Levant and Egypt. It was not possible to authenticate the claim.

The town has long been dedicated to scuba diving at the famed coral reefs. Sharm el Sheik has expanded at a furious pace in recent years, drawing Europeans, Israelis and Arabs from the oil-producing Gulf nations. Tony Blair has holidayed there, and the town has been the host to multiple summits for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Last night, some British airlines started sending extra planes to Sharm to bring back home some of the 9,000 Britons in the resort who want to cut short their stays.

The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, cut short a holiday on the Mediterranean coast and flew to Sharm el Sheikh. Heavily armed security forces guarded him as he walked past the bomb-ravaged complex and spoke to officials. "This cowardly, criminal act is aimed at undermining Egypt's security and stability and harming its people and its guests," Mr Mubarak said during a televised broadcast. "This will only increase our determination in chasing terrorism, cornering it and uprooting it."

The bombings will add to pressure on Mr Blair from across the Muslim world to close off Britain as a sanctuary for political refugees who are regarded in their home countries as extremists. President Mubarak has complained personally to Mr Blair in the past about Egyptian dissidents who have been allowed to live in the UK even though they are alleged to be active Muslim fundamentalists.

The same complaints were heard last week from Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf when he addressed his nation in a rallying call for a war on terrorism. Three of the four men responsible for the 7 July London bombs were of Pakistani origin, and two had recently visited the country. But Mr Musharraf suggested that Britain's problem with terrorism was at least partly home grown. He said: "There are extremist organisations in the United Kingdom who operate with full impunity in that area. They had the audacity of passing an edict against my life and yet they operate with impunity."

The Saudi government has also criticised Britain for allowing some of its nationals to operate in this country. But the Foreign Office insists that, under international law, citizens of countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia cannot be deported to their home countries if they are likely to be tortured.

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