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At least 27 killed in explosion at resort in Sinai Peninsula where Israelis vacationing

TABA, Egypt (AP) _ Rescuers Friday dug through the debris of a luxury hotel for victims of a series of bombs at resorts in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that are popular with Israelis. At least 27 people were killed, with more than 100 wounded, and officials feared the death toll would rise.

Thousands of frightened Israeli tourists rushed back home, streaming into Eilat just across the border Friday morning. Many complained bitterly that Egyptian authorities prevented tourists from leaving the hotels after the blasts and delayed them at the border.

Suspicion fell quickly on al-Qaida-inspired militants because the car and suicide bomb attacks Thursday night were clearly coordinated, a hallmark of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

Israeli and Egyptian rescuers searched the shattered Taba Hilton, where at least four people still were believed to be buried by the biggest blast that sheared outer rooms off a 10-story wing. Israeli military rescuer Gefan Naty told The Associated Press it was unlikely any more survivors would be found.

``I don't believe anyone is still alive. We just pulled out one child,'' about 10 years old, who was dead, Naty said.

Israel's Cabinet met Friday to discuss the attacks, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said he and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed by telephone that they must fight terrorism together.

Sinai's resorts were particularly crowded Thursday, the last day of the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot, when thousands of Israelis vacation there.

The most devastating of the bombings was at the Hilton, where a car laden with explosives crashed into the lobby and detonated, an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity. There were reports of a second or third explosion in the compound, one of which may have been a suicide bomber.

Two smaller blasts quickly followed in Ras Shitan, a camping area near the town of Nuweiba, 35 miles south of Taba.

The burned-out shell of a vehicle rested inside a meeting room at the Hilton, although officials would not say if it had carried the explosives.

Sheets and blankets tied to the Hilton's balconies showed the frantic efforts by guests to flee. Stairs of a fire escape were twisted perpendicular to the building. Business cards, CDs, bottles and cans, and personal items were scattered around. Burned cars sat outside the hotel.

Naty said a mother and daughter fell from the seventh floor; 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, but Egyptian authorities, for some reason, delayed their arrival.

Egyptian government spokesman Magdy Rady denied it.

``There was no such a thing _ no delay at all. Don't believe the Israelis,'' Rady told the AP.

By late Friday morning, most of the rescue workers at the scene were Israelis, wearing military uniforms or red rescue jackets. A few Egyptian security officials also were present.

There were varying reports on casualties.

Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said 27 people were confirmed dead. The Egyptian Interior Ministry said 22 died.

An official at Taba hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP 24 people were killed, including five Israelis, seven Egyptians and the rest foreigners whose nationalities were not immediately determined. Most of the deaths were at the Hilton. Israel radio reported 14 of the dead were Israelis.

More than 100 people were injured, with one report saying as many as 160, and at least two Britons were among the wounded. The Russian Foreign Ministry said an elderly Russian woman was among the dead and eight Russians were wounded.

Meir Frajun told of his frantic search for his three children, who were playing one floor below the lobby when the blast occurred. At first, he found only two.

``Everything was filled with smoke,'' Frajun told the AP 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.''

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

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

He didn't elaborate, but other officials drew links to the Israeli military operation against the Palestinians in the neighboring Gaza Strip, where more than 80 Palestinians have been killed in an Israeli offensive that began Sept. 29.

Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, told Israel's Army Radio that Palestinian militants apparently were not involved and he suspected al-Qaida affiliates: ``On the face of things, this is different from what we are familiar with from Palestinian terrorist groups.''

Mushir al-Masri, a Gaza spokesman for the Hamas militant group, denied Hamas involvement, but said the bombings were ``an expected result'' of Israeli operations against Palestinians.

No established groups have claimed responsibility, but three previously unknown groups claimed separately to have carried out the attacks. There was no way to confirm their authenticity.

Contributors to Islamic Web sites praised the attacks and linked them to a recent video said to have been issued by al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.

That video, shown by Al-Jazeera television Oct. 1, called for militants to organize and attack countries that had given Israel ``means of survival.'' The tape also urged holy warriors to fight Israelis and Americans before they enter Egypt.

The explosions came a month after the Israeli government urged citizens not to visit Egypt, citing a ``concrete'' terror threat to tourists. The warning, issued Sept. 9, identified Sinai as the target of a potential attack.

Egypt has long struggled with Islamic militants interested in overthrowing the secular government, but has contained the threat with periodic crackdowns and by allowing Islamists some political activity. The last major militant strike in Egypt was the 1997 massacre of 58 foreign tourists by Islamic extremists in the southern resort town of Luxor.

Four hours after the Taba blast, Israel's military took command of the scene, according to the army spokeswoman, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron. Shimon Romah, an Israeli fire chief, said rescue workers lost precious time because it took hours to bring heavy equipment to Taba.

``This was just a travesty, because these were four critical hours,'' Romah told Israel Radio.

Israeli security officials said Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and his Egyptian counterpart, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, agreed Friday to cooperate fully. The Egyptians told them a full army rescue unit would be allowed in with heavy equipment.

Egypt tightened security at its airports. Police searched cars coming in and out of Luxor and Hurghada, two southern tourist destinations, 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. Before the blast, 12,000 to 15,000 Israelis were believed to be in the Sinai.

Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but relations have been chilly as a result of Israeli military actions in Palestinian areas.
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