SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt -Three car bombs exploded in quick succession in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik early Saturday, ripping through a hotel and a coffeeshop packed with European and Egyptian tourists. The government said at least 88 people died.
The reception hall of the luxury Ghazala Gardens hotel collapsed into a pancaked pile of concrete, sending terrified guests fleeing for safety, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. Rescue workers hours later said they feared more victims may be buried in the rubble.
The explosions, beginning at 1:15 a.m., rattled windows miles away and raised flames and palls of smoke over Naama Bay, a main strip of beach hotels in the desert city at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, also popular with Israeli tourists.
Dazed beachgoers milled about the darkened streets as Egyptian rescuers searched for dead and injured. Bodies lay under white bedsheets or were loaded in plastic bags into ambulances, while other emergency vehicles sped away with the wounded.
"There seemed to be a lot of bodies strewn across the road" near one cafe, British policeman Chris Reynolds, visiting from Birmingham, England, told the BBC by telephone. "It was horrendous."
At least 62 people were killed, Health Minister Mohammed Awad Tag Eddin said. The interior minister earlier said 119 people were wounded and that at least eight foreigners were among the dead.
Interior Minister Habib al-Adli pinned the attack on Islamic militants. "This is an ugly act of terrorism," al-Adli said in a statement carried on the government news agency. "It has nothing to do with Islam, they are only acting under the slogan of Islam."
A group citing ties to al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the bombings that killed at least 62 people Saturday at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The group, calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Syria and Egypt, made the claim in a statement posted on an Islamic Web site.
It said its "holy warriors targeted the Ghazala Gardens hotel and the Old Market in Sharm el-Sheikh." The authenticity of the statement could not be immediately verified.
One of the explosives-laden cars smashed through security into the front driveway of the Ghazala Gardens hotel and exploded, said South Sinai province”s governor, Mustafa Afifi — suggesting it was a suicide bomber, though he did not specify that.
The blast tore down the reception hall and blew out windows throughout the sprawling, 176-room resort. Tree branches and twisted metal lay flung around the grounds. Inside, bloodstains dotted the floors. As daylight came, workers were clearing debris as investigators picked through rubble.
After the explosion, guests fled to a grassy area behind the hotel pool and spent the night there. "The windows came blasting in," said David Stewart, a tourist from Liverpool, England, who was huddling on the back lawn with his wife and two teenage daughters. "Somebody shouted, ”Keep moving.” The lights were out. I couldn”t tell what was happening."
The reception area was "completely burned down, destroyed," Amal Mustafa, 28, an Egyptian visiting Sharm with her family, told The Associated Press after driving by the site.
A second car bomb exploded in a parking area near the Movenpick Hotel, also in Naama Bay, said a receptionist there who declined to identify himself.
The third detonated at a minibus parking lot in the Old Market, an area about 2 1/2 miles from where many Egyptians and others who work in the resorts live. The blast ripped through a nearby outdoor coffee shop, killing 17 people, believed to be Egyptians, said a security official in the operations control room in Cairo monitoring the crisis.
More than eight hours later, an overturned shell of a minibus was still smoldering in the lot, not far from a large crater. Pools of blood and overturned chairs littered the coffeeshop, and the facade of a nearby mall was smashed into a windowless shell. Shards of another vehicle, apparently the one that carried the explosives, were strewn across the lot.
Three minibuses were set ablaze. It was not clear if they were carrying passengers, the official said.
After the blast, "I went to my balcony and saw fire and smoke rising from the car that exploded, which was a taxi," said Ibrahim al-Said, 35, a Sudanese man who lives in the Old Market.
The dead in the Sharm blasts included British, Russian, Dutch, Kuwaitis, Saudis, Qataris and Egyptians, a security official said.
In a statement issued Saturday in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned the bombings and said her "thoughts and prayers are with the families and innocent victims from many nations who suffered in this senseless attack."
"At this difficult time of testing, the United States stands with our friend and ally Egypt," Rice said. "Together we will confront and defeat this scourge that knows no boundary and respects no creed."
Egypt had enjoyed a relative lull in terrorist attacks since 1997, when Islamic militants killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians at the Pharaonic Temple of Hatshepsut outside Luxor in southern Egypt.
That was the last major terror attack for years, until last October”s bombings at hotels in the Sinai resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan, about 100 miles northwest of Sharm on the Israel border. Egyptian authorities said that attack was linked to Israeli-Palestinian violence, and they launched a wave of arrests in Sinai.
President Hosni Mubarak has a residence in Sharm el-Sheik, at a resort several miles outside Naama Bay and often spends weeks there at a time in the winter. But during the summer, he stays at a residence in the northern city of Alexandria.
A London police officer, Charlie Ives, who was on vacation, told BBC Television that he was in a cafe about 50 yards from two of the explosions.
"It was mass hysteria really. We tried to calm people down," he said. He said the blast was so strong, "We were virtually thrown from the cafe."
Another British tourist, Fabio Basone, was in Naama Bay”s Hard Rock Cafe when he heard a small explosion, then a larger one.
"We went outside on to the street where we were met with hundreds of people running and screaming in all directions," he told BBC. "I saw the front of a hotel had been blown away. … There were two bodies on the floor but I don”t know if they were dead."
Scores of ambulances from cities in northern Sinai were headed to Sharm, as were doctors from the Health Ministry in Cairo.
Egyptian Tourism Minister Ahmed al Maghrabi said the attacks were "meant to terrorize people and prevent them from moving and traveling." Speaking to the Nile News Channel, he vowed they would not hurt Egypt”s crucial tourism industry.
Thousands of tourists are drawn to Sharm for its sun, clear blue water and coral reefs. It also has been a meeting place where world leaders have tried to hammer out a Mideast peace agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met there in February and agreed to a cease-fire.