AMMAN (Reuters) -The Qaeda group led by America”s deadliest foe in Iraq on Thursday claimed bombings that ripped through luxury hotels in Jordan”s capital and killed 57 people.
In Wednesday night”s closely synchronized attacks, two bombs exploded while crowds were celebrating weddings, leaving blood and destruction at Amman”s Grand Hyatt and the nearby Radisson SAS. A third blast targeted a Days Inn hotel.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said in a statement on an Islamist website that "a group of our best lions" had carried out the attacks.
"Some hotels were chosen which the Jordanian despot had turned into a backyard for the enemies of the faith, the Jews and crusaders," said the message in a reference to King Abdullah. Its authenticity could not be verified.
The United States has put a $25 million bounty on Zarqawi, who comes from a town north of Amman.
Police said they thought the blasts were the work of suicide bombers. Simultaneous attacks are an al Qaeda hallmark and U.S. officials said they also suspected the network.
King Abdullah blamed a "deviant and misled group." While Foreign Minister Farouq Kasrawi said the attacks would not alter the policies of the kingdom, which is a close U.S. ally.
Al Qaeda in Iraq”s statement said: "Let the tyrant of Amman know that his protection…for the Jews has become a target for the mujahideen and their attacks, and let him expect the worst."
Jordan is one of two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel. It helped the United States in the war on Iraq.
Jordan had previously been spared major attacks, despite its proximity to Iraq and popularity as a tourist destination, but the authorities were braced for trouble.
"The initial investigations so far show that the blasts that caused the deaths of 57 people and wounded 110 people were executed by explosive devices and suicide bombings," a Jordanian cabinet statement said.
The violence in Iraq has forced many U.N. agencies and private relief groups to relocate to Amman, which also hosts about 400,000 Iraqis who have fled the mayhem, bringing valuable investment to the country.
"This is a worldwide evil," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, visiting Jordan on his way to Iraq, told reporters at the devastated Hyatt hotel. "Jordan”s determination to fight this terrorism is our determination too," he added.
Jordan initially closed its borders to try to stop suspects fleeing, but reopened them on Thursday, the state news agency Petra said. A security official said scores of people had been arrested, but gave no details.
Deputy Prime Minister Marwan al-Muasher said most of the victims were Jordanians. China said three Chinese were among those killed. A Palestinian diplomat said a senior Palestinian officer and two other officials were among the dead.
Schools, businesses and government offices closed as the stunned kingdom prepared to bury the dead. Police and troops threw up roadblocks around hotels and embassies in Amman.
"I was eating with friends in the restaurant next to the bar when I saw a huge ball of fire shoot up to the ceiling and then everything went black," said a French U.N. official, who was at the Hyatt. "It caused absolute devastation."
U.S. President George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other world leaders condemned the attacks. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan canceled plans to visit Amman on Thursday.
The explosion at the Radisson tore through a banqueting room where about 250 people were at a wedding reception, witnesses said. A smaller wedding was going on at the Hyatt.
Many Westerners, including tourists, businessmen and foreign contractors working in Iraq, were staying at the three hotels. The Radisson is known to be popular with Israeli tourists.
In August, Iraq”s al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a failed rocket attack on U.S. Navy ships in Jordan”s Aqaba port.
Zarqawi was jailed in Jordan for 15 years in 1996, but was freed three years later under an amnesty by King Abdullah.
Iraq”s interior minister said last month that documents found with a slain Zarqawi aide revealed a plan to send some foreign militants home to widen the battlefield beyond Iraq.
"So you will see insurgencies in other countries," Bayan Jabor told Reuters, adding that hundreds of Islamist fighters had left Iraq in recent months.
Pro-Western Jordan makes an appealing target for al Qaeda in its drive to topple "apostate" rulers across the Middle East and replace them with an Islamist caliphate. Its efficient intelligence services have close ties with the United States.
"The Jordanians have allowed the Americans to use their country as a staging post in the global war on terrorism," said David Claridge of London-based consulting group Janusian Security Risk Management, which maintains an office in Jordan.