RABAT, Morocco – A massive explosion ripped through a cafe popular among tourists in the Moroccan city of Marrakech on Thursday, killing 14 people including foreigners and wounding 20 in what the government called a criminal act.
If confirmed as terrorism, the blast in the iconic Djemma el-Fna square would be Morocco's deadliest bombing in eight years.
The explosion just before noon tore the facade off the two-story terracotta-colored Argana cafe, leaving awnings dangling. Panicked passersby dragged away bodies and tried to put out flames with fire extinguishers, witnesses told The Associated Press.
Moroccan government spokesman Khalid Naciri said that the 14 slain people came from a variety of countries but he did not say which ones.
"We worked for more than an hour, maybe less, on the hypothesis that this could eventually be accidental. But initial results of the investigation confirm that we are confronted with a true criminal act," Naciri said in an interview with France-24 television.
He said that more about the bombers' methods should be known within hours.
"There was a huge bang, and lots of smoke went up, there was debris raining down from the sky. Hundreds of people were running in panic, some towards the cafe, some away from the square. The whole front of the cafe is blown away," witness Andy Birnie, of north London, told the AP by telephone. Birnie is honeymooning in Marrakech.
The square is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its snake charmers, fire breathers and old town, or medina.
"It was lunchtime so the square was very busy. We had just walked into the square, but were shielded by some stalls," Birnie said.
The state news agency MAP quoted a statement from the Interior Ministry as saying that 14 people were killed and 20 hurt in the explosion. The ministry said it appeared to be a "criminal act" and an investigation is under way.
The nationalities of the victims were not immediately clear. The Spanish foreign ministry said it wasn't aware of any Spaniards among the victims but that its consul in Casablanca was making inquiries.
Morocco is largely calm but was hit by terrorist bombings in Casablanca in 2003 that killed 45 people, including the suicide bombers. Moroccan authorities have regularly rounded up terror suspects since then and have been on alert for terrorist activity.
The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, or GICM, a militant group was believed linked to those attacks. The GICM has also been implicated in the deadly attacks in Madrid in March 2004.
Al-Qaida has an affiliate operating in North Africa that stages regular attacks and kidnappings in neighboring Algeria. Morocco has said in the past that it has dismantled several al-Qaida plots. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb currently holds four Frenchmen hostage after kidnapping them in Niger last year, and recently released new images and audio recordings of their voices.
Portuguese tourist Alexandre Carvalho, a 34 year-old call center worker from southern Portugal said, "I had just arrived at the square, the area where most cafes are located. Suddenly I heard this massive explosion, I had my back turned to it, I turned around to see it the explosion had happened on the veranda of a cafe.
"There were at least 10 injured people, lots of debris, things flying up in the air. I saw people in a panic running towards the area with fire extinguishers, some people being carried away. I believe the injured were mostly tourists, judging by what they were wearing," Carvalho told AP by telephone.