Tragic new chapter in history of town synonymous with the peace process

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The Independent Online

Beneath the sparkling five-star tourist sheen of Taba lies a richly historical region that is littered with memories of failed Middle East peace processes.

Beneath the sparkling five-star tourist sheen of Taba lies a richly historical region that is littered with memories of failed Middle East peace processes.

It was in the Egyptian border town on the Sinai peninsula that the landmark and ultimately ill-fated Taba accords, also known as Oslo II, were signed nine years ago.

Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation signed the papers in Taba and Washington in September 1995 as part of a drive for peace in the Middle East. It agreed that the West Bank would be divided into three zones.

The main crux of the deal was to grant self-rule to the Palestinians in Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Tulkarm, parts of Hebron and 450 villages, while allowing Jewish settlements to stay. Less than two months later the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist, leading to the appointment of Shimon Peres.

As time passed, it became increasingly clear to those on both sides of the dispute that the agreement was not to be honoured.

By October 1998, Israel had not complied to the demands of the Taba accords and its demise was confirmed in 2000, when two weeks of talks at the Camp David presidential retreat failed to result in a settlement.

Taba remains a popular tourist destination which defies its political past by attracting numerous holidaying Israelis, despite popular animosity in Egypt to the Jewish state.

Beneath the tourist facade, a reminder of its vulnerability is never far from sight. From Taba Heights, there are stunning views of the Red Sea - as well as across Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and their heavily fortified borders.

The timing of last night's bombings have coincided with the seven-day Sukkot Jewish holiday, which traditionally results in 10,000 Israelis crossing the border to the Sinai peninsula. Israeli security forces had warned Israeli travellers against visiting Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea amid concerns they could be targeted by Palestinian militants waging a four-year-old uprising or by Islamic groups.

But for many visitors, the allure of the five-star hotels, pristine beaches and diving locations that define the region, has proven too hard to resist.

Tourists are routinely taken around the country in armed convoys, with extra protection given to visitors from Israel. The movements of independent travellers are restricted; they may catch only certain trains on the line parallel with the Nile, and no more than four may travel on a long-distance bus.

The economic consequences of last night's blasts for Egypt's fragile tourist industry will be serious. Visitor numbers had recovered after the attacks in the 1990s and the effects of 11 September.

But given diplomatic sensitivities, it is unlikely that the Foreign Office will counsel against holidays in Egypt. About 350,000 British travellers are expected to visit Egypt this year, many of them to the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba. Even after the Luxor attack in 1997, the UK government stopped short of warning against visits to Egypt.

TOURISTS UNDER FIRE IN EGYPT

1992: A British woman becomes the first foreigner killed by militants in Egypt when a tourist bus is ambushed

1993: Bomb is thrown near a tourist bus in Cairo

1994:A British tourist en route to a temple in southern Egypt is killed and three wounded when their minibus is machine-gunned

1995: A Dutch man and French woman are killed when militants fire on a passenger train in southern Egypt

1996: 17 Greeks and an Egyptian shot dead outside a hotel in Cairo near the Pyramids

September 1997: Six German tourists and three Egyptians killed by gunmen outside the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square

November 1997: Gunmen massacre 58 tourists in Luxor

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