Attacks by suspected Islamic terrorists struck hard at one of the Arab world's most stalwart allies of the United States last night when three explosions rocked Egypt's Sinai resort town of Dahab, leaving at least 23 people dead and 62 wounded.
Three foreigners, including a German child, were among those killed, officials said.
Security police in Sinai said they had arrested for questioning three people who allegedly left Dahab shortly after the explosions.
The attacks, at the height of the tourist season, bore all the hallmarks of al-Qa'ida. Terrorist attacks have killed about 100 people at resorts in the Sinai region in the past two years.
The resorts would have been full of Egyptians who were celebrating the Coptic Christian Easter and the festival of Shem al-Nessim, the first day of spring, and foreign tourists, mainly Israelis and Europeans.
The attackers struck a day after Osama bin Laden issued a taped warning that ordinary Westerners were legitimate targets because their governments were conducting a crusade against Islam.
Police said the almost simultaneous explosions hit the central part of the city where there are many shops, restaurants, bars and small hotels. The blasts ripped through the town shortly after nightfall when the streets would have been busy with tourists.
One blast hit the Ghazala supermarket and two explosions rocked the Nelson and Aladdin restaurants, all in the resort town's market area, about 7.15pm local time. Egyptian authorities said they did not believe the explosions were caused by suicide bombers but rather bombs that had been planted by militants.
Interior Minister Habib el-Adly put the death toll at 23, including 20 Egyptians and three foreigners. More than 62 people were wounded, including many Westerners.
One of the dead was a German child, according to the Egyptian Interior Ministry and the German Foreign Ministry. Police said one Russian and one Swiss were also killed, but el-Adly would not confirm those nationalities.
At least three Israelis were hurt in the attack.
Paul McBeath, who works in Dahab, said there had been "no warning whatsoever ... There were just three loud bangs and people rushing around. Everybody is shaken," he said.
Joseph Nazir, who owns a safari company in Dahab, said: "Everybody is panicking, a lot of people are crying. We will be affected by this for a long, long time."
The explosions "took place at very short intervals, in the busiest part of town. The street was littered with debris and I could see pools of blood," Belgian tourist Quentin d'Aspremont said. Another witness, Cecile Casey a French tourist, said the wounded were evacuated very quickly to nearby hospitals.
Jamie Gibbs, who moved out to the resort just a week ago to teach windsurfing, said he and colleagues went to try to help after hearing the blasts.
"We saw people being thrown into taxis, any vehicle," he said. "From what we saw there were so many Egyptians injured compared to the tourists out here. If it had been yesterday me and all the people I'm working with would have been in the area where all the bombs went off."
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said: "I utterly condemn these appalling bombings in Dahab, which have been targeted at a popular holiday resort and on an Egyptian public holiday," he said. "Once again terrorists have demonstrated their callous disregard for human life. We are doing everything possible to investigate if any British nationals have been involved." He said that Sir Derek Plumbly, the British ambassador to Egypt, was travelling to Dahab last night with a team from the embassy to offer assistance to British citizens in the area.
President Hosni Mubarak, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism, said the blasts were a "sinful terrorist action". President George Bush was quick to condemn the attacks as "a heinous act against innocent civilians". Israel's ambassador in Cairo, Shalom Cohen, said the best thing Israeli tourists in Sinai could do now would be to "go home" . There were thought to have been 1,800 Israelis in Sinai at the time of the explosions, and in the hours after the blast yesterday a steady stream of cars left Egypt for Israel.
A five-day Egyptian holiday had just begun and hotels all along the Sinai coast could be expected to be at near-full capacity. "There is smoke coming from the area and there are people running everywhere," said one witness, who did not want to be named. Human remains were seen in the streets after an explosion in a restaurant, other residents said. One said cars and buses leaving the resort were being stopped by police. "There were body parts and debris in the street ... There are ambulances and cars taking people to hospital," said another resident, who also did not want to be named.
Dahab is on the Gulf of Aqaba, on the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula. It has become a popular, low-key haven for young Western backpackers, mostly Israelis, who are drawn by scuba diving sites and cheap hotels, many of them made up of huts along the beach. In recent years, tourism has moved upmarket with the construction of a five-star Hilton resort. Last July, at least 60 people were killed and more than 200 were wounded when two car bombs and one suitcase bomb exploded in hotels and shopping areas in Egypt's tourist area of Sharm el-Sheikh. Yesterday's attack is the third in the area since 2004.
Suspicion for last night's attack fell on al-Qa'ida's Egyptian associates, who have been seeking to destabilise and topple the government of Mr Mubarak. Groups claiming to have links with al-Qa'ida claimed responsibility for last year's attacks, and Egyptian authorities say that Islamic militant groups were behind them. Egyptian authorities have not been able to demonstrate any real connection to al-Qa'ida, but the sophistication of the assaults leaves little doubt that well-organised international groups are behind the attacks.
Draconian emergency laws have restricted peaceful political activity, such as public meetings and demonstrations, and the government is ruthless in its repression of militant Islamists.
The latest attack comes a day after the broadcast of a communique from Osama bin Laden, in which he called on militant Islamists to converge in Sudan.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corporation, said the timing of the attacks "could be coincidence". He said Egypt was one of the most proficient Middle Eastern countries in dealing with terrorist groups, so this attack showed "how adept and innovative these groups are. It may be that the Sinai Peninsula is (Egypt's) Achilles heel. They've gone up and down the coast and hit the main tourist resorts."
Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian physician, author and poet who turned to terrorism after he was incarcerated and tortured by the Egyptian authorities.
Egypt under fire
* July 2005: Explosions kill 88 in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh
* April 2005: Two French tourists and an American killed by a suicide bomber in Cairo
* October 2004: Bombings kill 34, in the Red Sea resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan
* November 1998: Gunmen kill 58 foreign tourists and 4 Egyptians in Luxor
* September 1997: Gunmen kill 6 Germans and 3 Egyptians in Tahrir Square, Cairo
* April 1996: Gunmen kill 17 Greek tourists in Cairo after mistaking them for Israelis
* 1992-95: Gama'a al-Islamiya terror group orders tourists to leave Egypt and kills over 35Reuse content