An explosion ripped through the Hilton hotel in Taba, an Egyptian resort packed with Israeli tourists, last night in the worst of three blasts which hospital officials said claimed the lives of at least 29 people.
Today an Israeli army general said that at least 19 people were killed and 38 were missing.
The explosion in Taba, only yards from the Israeli-Egyptian border, raised immediate fears that at least one suicide bomber had struck at Israelis who had flocked to the Sinai peninsula and were enjoying the close of the week-long Sukkot Jewish holiday, which finished last night.
With reports putting the wounded at up to 100, including at least two British tourists, the most lethal of which reportedly trapped guests under the ruins of a collapsed wall on the western side of the Taba Hilton, Israeli rescue workers allowed across the border said helicopters and ambulances had evacuated 39 injured, including five in a serious condition.
It was the same hotel that was the scene of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in January 2001. The bombings prompted the Israeli foreign ministry to announce that Israel was preparing to evacuate 12,000 to 15,000 Israelis on the Sinai peninsula.
Making a bloody exodus from Egypt, dozens of Israelis wounded in one of the explosions streamed through a floodlit Sinai border crossing to hospital in the nearby Israeli resort of Eilat.
"The gates of Hell suddenly opened," an Israeli doctor, a guest at the shattered Taba Hilton hotel on the Red Sea, told Israel's Channel One television.
An unconscious child and a young woman, her arm wrapped in a blood-soaked bandage, were among those carried on stretchers into waiting ambulances for the short ride to Eilat's Josephtal hospital.
Israeli security sources were quoted last night as saying there was a growing conviction that the explosion was caused by a "terrorist attack" after the Taba blast hit the hotel lobby, causing a ceiling to collapse and starting a fire which hampered the evacuation of guests.
Meanwhile, Egyptian officials - while formally denying that there was yet conclusive evidence of a deliberate attack - said that the Taba explosion had occurred among combustible gas tanks in the kitchen of the hotel, which was close to a casino crowded with tourists at the time of the blast. But the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the explosion had taken place in the hotel lobby.
Although Egypt has seen several militant attacks aimed at tourists before, this looked last night to be the first specifically aimed at Israeli visitors, who had been explicitly warned last month against travel to the resorts of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt, one of only two Arab countries with which Israel enjoys a full treaty. Once again, however, Israeli tourists had flocked to the Sinai during the Jewish holiday.
The other two, smaller, blasts occurred in Nuweiba, part of the area of Ras al Shitan, a camping area also highly popular with Israeli tourists. A Ras al Sitan human rights activist, Abdel Raziq, said: "I heard one very big explosion coming from the Taba direction and then, after a while, I heard two smaller explosions from Nuweiba."
In Taba, a witness to the Hilton explosion, Yigal Vakni, told Israel Radio: "The whole front of the hotel has collapsed. There are dozens of people on the floor, lots of blood. It is very tense. I am standing outside of the hotel, the whole thing is burning and they have nothing to put it out with." He said most of the people at the Hilton were Israeli. "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."
The official warning, issued on 9 September by the counter-terrorism centre in the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, identified Egypt's Sinai peninsula as the likely target of a potential attack. "Recently a concrete possibility has emerged that terrorists will try to attack tourist centres in Egypt, especially the Sinai," the Israeli Foreign Ministry had said in a statement published on its website.
Despite speculation that the militant Palestinian faction Hamas could be to blame for last night's blasts, there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Nor was there any indication whether the attack on the relatively soft target of Israeli tourists in a neighbouring Arab country was in any way connected with the nine-day incursion by Israeli forces into the northern Gaza strip. Israeli forces entered the strip once again after two small children were killed by a Palestinian Qassam rocket fired at the Israeli border town of Sderot last week.
Hamas officials in Gaza also declared after the assassination of one of its senior official in Damascus last week that Israelis abroad would be vulnerable to retaliatory attacks, though this threat was subsequently downplayed by leaders of the faction in Syria.
Longwood Holidays, of Woodford Green, east London, had 19 British clients in the Hilton Taba. Association of British Travel Agents spokeswoman Frances Tuke said: "We understand that all 19 are out of the hotel and all are safe."Reuse content