CAIRO, Egypt – An explosion apparently set off by a bomber on a motorcycle hit a tour group shopping in a historic bazaar Thursday, killing at least two people and wounding 20 — the first attack targeting foreign tourists in the Egyptian capital in more than seven years.
The dead included a French woman, and 11 Egyptians and nine foreigners were wounded, said Brig. Gen. Nabil al-Azabi, head of security in Cairo. He said the second person killed may have been the bomber.
Many of the wounded had severe wounds from nails packed in the bomb, doctors said. Among the wounded foreigners were three Americans, four French, and a Turk, the Interior Ministry said. The ministry said there was also a wounded Italian, but Italian diplomats leaving the hospital later said there were no Italians among the casualties and had no explanation for the discrepancy.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo was putting out a warden message warning Americans to stay away from Khan al-Khalili, the sprawling bazaar area, and to use prudence elsewhere in the city, said embassy spokesman James L. Bullock. He would not confirm American casualties in the blast.
Egypt has seen a long period of calm since it suppressed Islamic militants who in the 1990s carried out bombings and shootings against tourists in their campaign to bring down the government. The last significant attack on tourists in Cairo was in 1997.
At least two witnesses said a man on a motorcycle appeared to have set off a bomb near a tour group in the al-Moski bazaar, a maze of narrow alleys with shops selling jewelry, souvenirs and clothes connected to the biggest tourist souk, Khan al-Khalili.
Al-Azabi said initial investigations suggested the explosive was a homemade nail-packed bomb that went off prematurely. He said the second person killed, whose body was severely mutilated, may have been the man carrying the bomb.
Hours later, the site was littered with glass, metal fragments and body parts, as forensic experts and investigators searched for evidence. Officials warned the number of dead could rise; four of the wounded were in critical condition.
The witnesses were not clear whether the man on the motorcycle was a suicide bomber or threw an explosive.
Police said two people were taken in for questioning and police were investigating a motorcycle found nearby with nails scattered around it. Rabab Rifaat, an Egyptian woman who was shopping in a store several yards from the blast, said she heard “a boom, a horrible sound, very loud. Everyone started running.”
She said she then saw a decapitated head flying through the air.
A large, organized tour group was in the market when the explosion went off, Rifaat said. Six or seven bodies lay on the ground afterward, some of them foreign-looking, and an Egyptian man ran with burns on his back and his clothes torn, Rifaat said. It was unclear if the bodies were dead or wounded.
A French Embassy spokeswoman Bernadette Abou Bechara that a French woman, a tourist, was killed.
Hundreds of riot police sealed off the area, although tourists remained in Khan al-Khalili, several hundred yards outside the police cordon. Three officials from the U.S. Embassy arrived about three hours after the explosion and tried to make their way through the police cordon.
A heavy police presence also surrounded al-Husseini University Hospital, where many of the wounded were taken. An elderly Egyptian woman sobbed as she tried to push into the hospital to see a 15-year-old granddaughter she believed had been wounded.
The Khan is the most famous of a number of closely packed bazaars near al-Azhar, one of the most prestigious Islamic institutions in the Sunni Muslim world, in Cairo’s old city.
Tourism is Egypt’s highest earner of foreign exchange — and was targeted by Islamic extremists in the 1990s.
In September 1997, two gunmen fired on a tour bus outside the Egyptian Museum in central Cairo, killing 10 people — mostly German tourists. Two months later, militants killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians in an attack at a pharaonic temple in Luxor, southern Egypt.
Last October, explosions hit several hotels in the Sinai Peninsula, including one in the resort of Taba, killing 34 people. Egyptian authorities say that attack was linked to Israeli-Palestinian violence.