Toll climbs as hotel attack is blamed on al-Qa'ida

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The death toll from the Sinai resort blasts continued to rise today after an attack on a luxury hotel blamed on al-Qa'ida.

The death toll from the Sinai resort blasts continued to rise today after an attack on a luxury hotel blamed on al-Qa'ida.

At least 27 people were killed and at least four were missing.

A string of bombs that hit resorts popular with Israelis in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, toppling a 10 storey wing of the Taba Hilton hotel and sending thousands of terrified people streaming back into Israel today.

Rescuers searched for victims buried under the rubble of the Hilton hotel wing.

But Gefan Naty, an Israeli military rescuer, said finding more survivors was unlikely.

"I don't believe anyone is still alive. We just pulled out one child, aged about 10, who was dead", he said.

He said a mother and daughter fell from the seventh floor to the first the mother died of her injuries, but the daughter survived.

Naty said he believed rescue workers could have saved the mother if they been allowed to get to the scene earlier. Egyptian authorities, he said, delayed their arrival: "I don't know why."

No credible claims of responsibility emerged immediately, though suspicion for the clearly co-ordinated car and suicide bomb attacks fell quickly on al-Qa'ida-inspired militants.

The most devastating of last night's strikes were at the Taba Hilton, where a car laden with explosives crashed into the lobby and blew up, said an Israeli official.

There were reports of a second or third explosion within the hotel compound, one of which may have been caused by a suicide bomber.

Those explosions were followed by two smaller blasts in the area of Ras Shitan, a camping area near the town of Nuweiba south of Taba, witnesses said.

Israeli rescue worker Shahar Zayit described the devastation at the Hilton - and frantic efforts of hotel guests to escape - became clear.

"We saw really a battle zone - everything on the western side from the lobby and to the roof had collapsed," Zayit said. "I see a lot of things like sheets tied together by people who tried to escape because stairwells also collapsed."

Israel's deputy defence minister, Zeev Boim, said Palestinian militants apparently were not involved and he suspected al-Qa'ida affiliates: "On the face of things, this is different from what we are familiar with from Palestinian terrorist groups."

Palestinian terror group denied it had any involvement.

Meir Frajun said his three children were playing one floor below the lobby when the blast tore through the building. He went down but found only two of them.

"Everything was filled with smoke," Frajun said after crossing into the nearby Israeli resort of Eilat. "We were hysterically looking for the child. In the end we found him sitting outside with an Arab guest of the hotel."

The dead included five Israelis, seven Egyptians and the rest foreigners whose nationalities were not immediately determined.

More than 100 people were injured, with reports as high as 160, and at least two Britons and an undetermined number of Russians were believed to be among the casualties.

The charred hulks of Toyota pickup trucks could be seen at the two sites. One was blasted apart, its motor lying on the ground 20 yards away.

Amsalem Farrag, whose uncle and cousin own camps in Ras Shitan, said the two blasts were only five seconds apart. He said the camps were full of Israelis.

Egypt's tourism minister, Ahmed El Maghraby, indicated the attacks were political: "Look at the timing. Look at the choice of place."

He did not expand but other officials drew links to the Israeli military operation against the Palestinians in the neighbouring Gaza Strip, where 84 Palestinians.

Sinai's resorts were particularly crowded, with holidays in Egypt and Israel.

No established groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings, but three previously unknown groups claimed separately to have carried out the attacks.

Tawhid Islamic Brigades published a claim on a Web site that has been used frequently for such claims from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. And Jamaa Al-Islamiya Al-Alamiya, or World Islamist Group, called an international news agency in Jerusalem. Neither group offered detail of how it carried out the attack, as such claims usually do, and there was no way to confirm their authenticity.

A third group that called itself the Brigades of the Martyr Abdullah Azzam, al-Qa'ida, in the Levant Egypt, posted a claim on an Islamic Web site known for running messages purportedly from the al-Qa'ida terror network. The claim described the attacks as a message to the Palestinians, Muslims everywhere, and the Israeli government and people.

Contributors to those Web sites were praising the explosions and linking them to a recent video tape said to have been issued by al-Qa'ida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The explosions came a month after the Israeli government urged citizens not to visit Egypt, citing a "concrete" terror threat to tourists in an area. The warning identified the Sinai Peninsula as the target of a potential attack.

The security adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Jibril Rajoub, said that no Palestinian factions were responsible for the explosions.

Four hours after the blast, Israel's military took command of the scene, according to the army spokeswoman, Brigadier General Ruth Yaron, but there were delays in sending Israeli forces and rescue workers across the tense border.

Shimon Romah, an Israeli fire chief, said rescue workers lost precious time because they were unable to bring heavy equipment to Taba for several hours.

"This was just a travesty, because these were four critical hours," Romah said.

Thousands of frightened Israeli tourists rushed back home, streaming into Eilat today. Many Israeli tourists complained bitterly about the Egyptian authorities who they said prevented tourists from leaving their hotels after the blasts and delayed them at the border. Before the blast, 12,000 to 15,000 Israelis were believed to be in the Sinai.

Israeli radio reported a nationwide call for surgeons to get to Eilat.

Egypt upgraded a security alert at the airports in Cairo and in the southern tourist cities of Luxor, Hurghada and Aswan. Police were searching cars coming in and out of Luxor and Hurghada and there was a heavy police presence around hotels.

Taba is the main crossing between Israel and Egypt and the gateway for thousands of Israelis who travel to the hotels and resorts on the Red Sea. Thursday was the last day of the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot, when thousands of Israelis holiday in the Sinai.