A bomb tore through one of Morocco's best-known tourist spots yesterday killing 15 people and injuring 20 others in an attack that carried the hallmarks of Islamist militants. A Briton was feared to be among the victims.
Marrakech's famous Djemaa el-Fna square, a Unesco World Heritage site popular with British travellers and known for its snake charmers and fire breathers, was packed at lunchtime yesterday when the explosion ripped through the Argana café. The country's deadliest attack in almost a decade appeared to be the work of a suicide bomber after witnesses reported seeing a man carrying a bag walk into the café shortly before the blast.
Witnesses said it destroyed the second floor, ripping off the roof of the upstairs terrace and devastating the façade. Panic ensued as people rushed to put out the fire and drag the injured and bodies from the rubble.
"I went outside and saw smoke and got to the café and saw falling masonry," Hugo Somersham-Jones, a British hotel owner, told the BBC.
"We saw a number of limp, lifeless bodies being picked up by brave waiters and no doubt members of the public as well. So it's a pretty chaotic scene. My manager saw a lady who had lost an arm. On the floor surrounding the café out on the street, maybe 50 to 75 metres away, there were footmarks of red blood."
The Ministry of Interior said several nationalities were among the tourists and staff feared dead but would not elaborate further. State television said that 10 of the dead were foreigners, including six French people and four others whose nationalities were not clear. The Foreign Office could not confirm last night whether there were any British victims.
Initially, the authorities suspected an accident – a fire among gas canisters in the building – but swiftly changed the assessment. "Analysis of the early evidence collected at the site of the blast confirms the theory of an attack," the Interior Ministry said in a statement carried by the official MAP news agency.
A government spokesman, Khalid Naciri, said it was too soon to say who was behind the attack, though Morocco has been the target of several plots by the North African branch of al-Qa'ida, as well as local militant groups.
The country has largely been quiet since a series of terrorist bombs killed 45 people in Casablanca in 2003, but there have been sporadic attempts to detonate explosions by suicide bombers. The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group was linked to the Casablanca atrocities, as well as to the Madrid bombings a year later. The authorities have also repeatedly claimed to have dismantled cells linked to al-Qa'ida, which has affiliates regularly staging attacks in neighbouring Algeria.
The large Argana café is popular with foreigners who want a prime spot to watch the famous square over tea and ice cream. One businessman said: "You can't find a more emblematic target than Djemaa el-Fna square. With this attack, tourism will hit the doldrums for some time."
"There was a huge bang, and lots of smoke went up. There was debris raining down from the sky. Hundreds of people were running in panic, some towards the café, some away from the square. The whole front of the café is blown away," Andy Birnie, a British honeymooner, said.
Amid a host of uprisings across the region, there have been two months of peaceful protests in Morocco demanding that King Mohammed VI give up some of his powers and a radical overhaul of the country's governance.
"Everything was covered in blood. The scene was horrifying. Tables were broken and glass was shattered."
Tarek Bozid, photographer
"I had just arrived at the square... Suddenly I heard this massive explosion. I turned around to see it had happened on the veranda of a café."
Alexandre Carvalho, Portuguese tourist
"People had fire extinguishers, they were trying to put out the fire, and others were pulling people out from the building. It was pretty bad."
Hugo Somersham-Jones, British hotel owner
"There was a huge bang and lots of smoke went up. There was debris raining down from the sky."
Andy Birnie, British honeymooner
"People are panicking. This is a terrorist act and it will affect the economy and tarnish the country's image. Local investors are selling."
A trader on Morocco's stock exchange
"With this attack and amid the worrying unrest in the region, tourism will hit the doldrums for some time."
An unnamed businessman
"Foreigners are getting out. They're afraid of getting stuck like [people] did in Egypt. This is a normal reaction, but I think this is an isolated incident."
Amine Larhrib, CDG Capital BourseReuse content