Evidence still elusive

Although initial reports blamed al-Qaida for the bombings at a Red Sea resort, investigators are now focused on Egyptian militants.

Published October 11, 2004 2:25PM (EDT)

Egyptian security forces investigating the resort bombings that killed at least 33 people were concentrating their hunt Sunday on a group of previously unknown Egyptian militants. An Egyptian security official involved in the search conceded that "the perpetrators are Egyptians" but added that they had "help from someone outside."

The Israeli government has blamed al-Qaida for the explosions last Thursday, rather than a Palestinian group.

Osama el-Baz, an advisor to the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, said he did not necessarily disagree but had no concrete evidence. He said: "We are open-minded. The initial report was al-Qaida, but we have not found any evidence yet to substantiate this premise. We are still looking for clues." Baz said the British government had offered explosives experts and this help would be taken up if needed.

More than 20 people have been arrested in Egypt in connection with the bombings at the Red Sea resort of Taba, near the Israeli-Egyptian border, and further south at Ras Shitan. Both are popular with Israeli holiday makers.

The Egyptian government said yesterday that only 15 bodies had been positively identified so far, six of them Israeli and nine Egyptian. Later DNA tests confirmed that two Italian sisters were among the victims, Italy's Foreign Ministry revealed. The bodies of Jessica Rinaudo, 19, and 22-year-old Sabrina will be returned to Italy by military plane.

The Egyptian security official said indications that the group was Egyptian stemmed from the discovery that a saloon car used in the Taba attack had been bought in Egypt. The car, filled with explosives, rammed into the hotel, causing the collapse of one side of the 10-story building. Having bought the car inside Egypt, the group would have been able to cross the many checkpoints inside the Sinai Desert without much trouble.

Egyptian security services are operating on the theory that the explosives were brought into the country separately. "The explosives were probably brought to Sinai from Aqaba from Jordan or Saudi Arabia," the official said.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and various al-Qaida cells or groups sympathetic to al-Qaida continue to operate there underground. It would have been relatively easy to smuggle explosives across the Red Sea.

Jordan is also home to al-Qaida members and sympathizers, although to a lesser extent than Saudi Arabia. It is the birthplace of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Tawhid and Jihad, the al-Qaida-style group creating mayhem in Iraq. Among those arrested and being questioned by Egypt about the explosives are bedouin tribesmen. The bedouin are being blamed by Egypt for human trafficking and drug smuggling by boat from rocky islands in the Gulf of Aqaba into Sinai.

The Egyptian security services have ruled out remnants of the two main Islamist terrorist groups inside the country, Islamic Jihad and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. The former has disbanded and the latter agreed to a ceasefire seven years ago after an Egyptian government crackdown. The security official said police and intelligence officers have kept watch on former members, and any attacks would have had to have been carried out by new members with no police records. The official added that they would have needed help from outside.

The Egyptian and Israeli governments are cooperating in the investigation. The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abu Gheit, said the Israeli ambassador to Egypt had initially protested that the country was not doing enough in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, a charge Gheit forcefully rejected.

The envoy insisted that the attacks would not upset talks with the Israeli government on its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The situation has been helped by the fact that Palestinian groups do not appear to have been involved. Mubarak's advisor, Baz, said that even though it seemed unlikely that the explosives had gone in across the Israeli border, Egypt would propose tightening the border controls with Israel.

The Camp David agreement in 1979 ending conflict between the two countries allows only a police presence, but Baz said it would be better to have military or border police in place.

By Ewen MacAskill

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