Moroccans move to protect tourism as bombers 'admit links to terror network'

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The Independent Online

Two of the suspected suicide bombers who struck Casablanca on Friday have indicated under questioning that they had links with international terror networks, the authorities said yesterday.

The two had recently returned from "a suspect country", said to be Afghanistan. All 14 killers had been identified, Mustafa Sahel, the Interior Minister, said. They were all poor Moroccans in their twenties, mostly students. One was a car park attendant. At least eight came from the Sidi Moumen shanty town on Casablanca's outskirts, and were members of three Islamic radical groups.

The authorities have moved quickly to scotch claims that the attacks, which included three Jewish targets, have damaged Morocco's reputation for religious harmony. They insist that Moroccan Islam upholds democratic principles and that the country's ancient Jewish community of 3,500 has nothing to fear.

Andre Azoulay, an adviser to King Muhammed, said the country had received the active solidarity of a million Moroccan Jews now living abroad. "They tell me they feel more Moroccan than ever," he told The Independent. Mr Azoulay, who is Jewish, said he was proud to be able to trace his ancestry back hundreds of years. "We have a long history of openness - I don't like this feeble word tolerance - of welcome to all religions, and it is no accident that the huge Jewish diaspora still see Morocco as the mother country," Mr Azoulay said in his office in the palace in Rabat.

Human rights campaigners have held demonstrations urging the government not to curb freedom of expression as part of the clampdown against the fundamentalist threat. French, Spanish and US security chiefs are in Rabat to help Morocco, and a new anti-terror law is being planned. "We are committed to democracy," Mr Azoulay said. "But we must take decisions to protect our democracy against those out to kill it."

Behind assurances that everything is stable and under control, business people fear the country's economic future as a culturally diverse tourist destination is under threat. Tourism authorities met on Monday to forge a crisis plan.

The government had launched an ambitious policy aimed at quadrupling numbers of foreign visitors within seven years. The tourism department was recently separated from the finance mini- stry and headed by the dynamic politician Adil Douiri.

Tourist authorities say the immediate impact of the attacks is slight. Few visitors were cancelling bookings, or cutting short their holidays, they said.

But the industry is jittery and fears a serious decline. Mr Douiri's ministry is aiming to make tourism the engine of the economy, boosting prosperity and reducing the yawning social inequalities.