CAIRO, Egypt – Two suicide attackers targeting international peacekeepers and police blew themselves up Wednesday, two days after nearly simultaneous bombings killed at least 21 people at a resort in the Sinai Peninula.
Egyptian Interior Minister Habib el-Adly said all the blasts this week were linked to terror attacks against Sinai resorts last year and in 2004.
“The information we have indicates that (the perpetrators) are Sinai Bedouin, and the latest operations are linked to the previous attacks,” el-Adly told state television, referring to the terror attacks in the Sinai resorts of Sharm el-Sheik last July and Taba in October 2004.
Egyptian authorities — eager not to further damage the Sinai’s vital tourist trade by linking al-Qaida to the bombings — have blamed Bedouin tribesmen for past attacks. But some outside intelligence officials have said groups linked to
Osama bin Laden’s terror organization were the more likely suspects.
The largely impoverished peninsula, a barren expanse where Bedouin eke out a meager existence and tourists luxuriate in seaside hotels, has become fertile ground for terrorists, who have hit the Multinational Force and Observer peacekeepers twice in less than a year — both times after larger and bloodier attacks on Sinai resorts.
Wednesday’s attacks were unsophisticated — one bomber was riding a bicycle — and only the militants died.
The death and destruction were far greater Monday, when three bombs shattered a peaceful holiday weekend, killing 21 people in the Dahab resort 190 miles to the south.
Authorities have rounded up dozens of suspects and are studying the dismembered remains of three men to learn if they were suicide bombers in the Dahab attacks. Three detainees were released after questioning Wednesday.
Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, flew to Yemen on Wednesday for talks on the Dahab bombings, according to intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information. They said Egypt wants to know if al-Qaida activists who escaped from a prison in Yemen might be connected to Sinai terror cells.
The interior minister said he believed Wednesday’s attack was carried out by the same group responsible for the Dahab bombings on Monday, and that both strikes were linked to those of 2005 and 2004.
Terrorism expert Steven Emerson said by telephone from Washington offered a different scenario.
“It’s clear these people are from some al-Qaida derivative group,” Emerson said by telephone from Washington. “The Egyptians have a real problem in the Sinai where these jihadists are able to move in with impunity and collaborate with the local Bedouin. The bombers couldn’t operate in the Sinai without the support of the Bedouin.”
Emerson said he believes the attackers’ goal was destroying Egypt’s tourism industry — which brought in $6.4 billion last year — and overthrowing President
Hosni Mubarak, whose quarter-century in power has been marked by harsh crackdowns on militant groups.
The Sinai is about the size of West Virginia, and is home to the mountain where the Bible says Moses received the Ten Commandments. Its long coastline — washed by the warm waters of the Red Sea — is being rapidly developed for tourists.
But Sinai residents, mainly nomadic Bedouin, complain they are poorly served by the government.
After 34 people died in bomb attacks on the Sinai resorts of Taba and Ras Shatan in October 2004, Egyptian security forces rounded up thousands of people — including Bedouin women. In the Bedouin culture, the detention of women by a male police force is a violation of honor that must be avenged.
The arrests prompted New York-based Human Rights Watch to criticize Egypt, maintaining that as many as 2,400 people remained in custody in February 2005. It said some prisoners were tortured.
Similar roundups occurred after suicide bombings in Sharm el-Sheik killed 64 people last July. Some analysts believe the heavy-handed tactics have only made residents more receptive to militants.
“I think Egyptian authorities have not yet gotten the measure of the Sinai problem,” said Hugh Roberts, the Cairo director of the North Africa project at the International Crisis Group.
In the first attack Wednesday, a man driving a pickup truck intercepted a multinational force SUV, forced it to stop and then jumped out of the truck and flung himself at the vehicle, blowing himself up.
About 35 minutes later, Egyptian police Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Zamlout was riding in a car when a suicide bomber riding a bicycle struck the vehicle.
“I heard the man yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) and then a big explosion hit our car,” al-Zamlout said, his blue uniform splattered with the bomber’s blood.
Both attacks happened near the main multinational force base about three miles south of the Rafah border crossing to Gaza.
At about the same time, Palestinian police foiled an attempt by militants to blow up the Karni crossing between
Israel and Gaza. Three officers and two militants were wounded in an exchange of fire, and police found hundreds of pounds of explosives in the car.
Israel then shut the crossing, as it has done repeatedly this year because of security concerns, causing economic hardship in Gaza.
The strike on the multinational force in Sinai was the second in less than a year. In August, a crude roadside bomb blasted a vehicle belonging to peacekeepers, slightly wounding two Canadians.
The 1,800 peacekeepers monitor the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace deal. Ten countries make up the force — the United States, Canada, Australia, Colombia, Fiji, France, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand and Uruguay. Norway provides three officers.
The peacekeepers’ mandate is to ensure enforcement of the provisions of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which led to Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai. In practice, it serves mostly as a buffer between the countries.