Officials: Morocco blast had Al-Qaida hallmarks

AP News
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Posted: Apr 29, 2011 7:06 PM
Officials: Morocco blast had Al-Qaida hallmarks

Snake charmer Ghali Nouiti was dangling his pet around the neck of a wary European tourist for a photo shoot, when even greater fright struck: a terror bombing that Moroccan authorities now say bears the hallmarks of an al-Qaida attack.

Thursday's blast at a popular cafe overlooking the famed Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech blew shrapnel, body parts and debris onto the vast tile-covered plaza, killing at least 16 people _ including 14 foreign tourists _ and shattering Morocco's image as a peaceful getaway spot.

"The manner reminds us of the style used generally by al-Qaida," Interior Minister Taieb Cherqaoui said Friday, "and this leads us to think that there is a possibility of more dangers to come."

He stopped short of confirming a link with the terror group, whose affiliate in North Africa has been mainly active in neighboring Algeria and farther south.

The death toll rose to 16 after a French woman died of her wounds, he said. Overall, seven French, two Canadians, a Dutch and a Briton were among those killed. Experts were still trying to identify the other three through DNA tests, but he said they too were believed to be foreigners.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, Morocco's deadliest attack since five near-simultaneous bombings left 45 people dead _ including a dozen attackers _ in the country's economic capital, Casablanca, in 2003.

Cherqaoui said that initial results suggested the bomb had been packed with nails and was set off remotely. Earlier, Interpol, the international police body, had said it appeared to be a suicide attack.

With an asp's head pinched between his fingers, Nouiti, a 30-year-old and third-generation snake charmer, confirmed that theory: He said one of his colleagues was hospitalized after being hit in the nose by a projected nail.

He and many others in Marrakech fear for the economic fallout if tourists are scared away _ and for a country of 30 million that attracted nearly 10 million tourists last year, the effect is potentially disastrous.

Ahmed El Gharbi, the co-owner of Cafe Glacier, another restaurant offering majestic views over Djemaa el-Fna, said tourist traffic Friday evening was down about 70 percent from a regular day.

"The attackers have destroyed us," said Nouiti, wearing a traditional Tagia cap and Djellabah robe. As the blast struck, his legs buckled, and even though he wanted to rush to help, he simply couldn't move.

"Yesterday, the plaza was full, and we had just passed in front of the cafe ... We saw a very big plume of smoke, and a lot of objects go up in the air," said Stephane Le Pretre, a 46-year-old tourist from Rouen in northwest France, traveling with his children. They watched sheets laid over the dead.

In a quiet, peaceful vigil, hundreds from the city's crucial hospitality industry thronged the site on Friday, variously hoisting white flowers, raising up two fingers in a "V" or wearing stickers that read: "I (heart) Marrakech."

The names of some of the city's top-tier hotels adorned wreaths laid along the steel barriers outside the cafe, as police forensic teams from both Morocco as well as France and Spain shuttled inside to inspect the damage.

Amid weeks of turmoil across the Arab world, tourists said they had beenparticularlyy drawn to Morocco _ a relatively peaceful North African kingdom with far less street upheaval than in places like Tunisia, Libya, Syria or Yemen as part of efforts to bring more democracy to the Arab world.

"Many tourists had been coming here because so many other countries have been unstable," Luca Pellerano, a 30-year-old Italian tourist, during a late-night stop to the square to see the devastation after returning from a trip into the Atlas mountains nearby.

Morocco too has protests, if smaller and more-sporadic, led by a Facebook-driven group called the February 20 movement. In their wake, King Mohammed VI has vowed changes to the constitution for the first time in 15 years.

In a flyer distributed at Friday's vigil, the February 20 group said the blast must not serve as a pretext for authorities to clamp down of the steps to rid the country of corruption and bring greater government transparency.

"What happened will not deter our will to carry on with reforms and the democracy we aspire to," Cherqaoui said.

The blast demolished holiday-making merriment: the Dutch person killed was said to have been fresh off a biking trip through the arid country; some French victims were on a birthday-celebration getaway.

The city's center for centuries, Djemma el-Fna today lures visitors for its snake charmers, storytellers, jugglers and musicians, and fills cafes that ring the square on the route to the city's major open-air souk, or market.

"This type of person who led this attack is really targeting us poorer people, who live off the tourism," said Mohamed Aghantou, 30, who works as a night guard at the citrus-drink and dried-fruit kiosks on Djemaa el-Fna.

European governments were working with Morocco to try to identify those killed.

London's Jewish Chronicle said British travel writer Peter Moss _ formerly of the newspaper _ was killed. Britain's foreign ministry said it could not confirm the report before official identification of the victim.

Britain's minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, said British officials were "co-ordinating closely with the Moroccan authorities including to determine whether other British nationals could be amongst the victims."

Speaking on Israeli radio, the Israeli consul in Shanghai, Jackie Eldan, identified two of the dead as a Jewish couple who lived in China: an Israeli woman and her Moroccan husband. They had been visiting his parents in Casablanca and had taken a day trip to Marrakech, leaving their 3-year-old son with his grandparents.

Cherqaoui said four of the injured had returned home: two to Switzerland, two to Russia.

Condemnation of the bombing poured in from Europe and places like China and the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised support for Morocco, a U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.

The U.S. consulate in Marrakech issued a warden's message, warning that "the potential for terrorist violence against U.S. interests and citizens remains elevated in Morocco" and advising Americans to keep a low profile and avoid predictable travel patterns.

France, Morocco's former colonial ruler, has sent psychologists and extra staff to the consulate in Marrakech, and is helping investigate, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. He said French authorities had no evidence that France's interests were being specifically targeted.

If the attacker's target was foreigners, then the bombing partially missed its mark: at least two Moroccans, including at least one cafe waiter, were among those killed.

At the city morgue, where relatives were identifying the bodies, a young, devout Muslim in a long beard and white robe said he was the brother of one of the Moroccan victims. "They are assassins," said the man, who did not give his name or speak further to The Associated Press.

Since the 2003 attacks, the kingdom has regularly dismantled al-Qaida cells and at times said it thwarted would-be attacks. Thousands of Islamists, either suspects or convicted in terror-linked affairs, are in Moroccan jails.

On the outskirts of Marrakech on Friday, police set up checkpoints to search vehicles and check identity papers of the occupants as they sought to tighten the dragnet against possible perpetrators.

Al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa stages regular attacks and kidnappings in neighboring Algeria. Morocco has been mostly peaceful since the Casablanca bombings.

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Hassan Alaoui in Rabat, David Stringer in London, Matti Friedman in Jerusalem, and Greg Keller and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.