TABA, Egypt – Terrorist bombs blew up three resorts popular with Israelis in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula Thursday night, killing up to 27 people, with the death toll expected to rise.
The coordinated car and truck bombings and the heavy casualties bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda. Israeli and Palestinian officials said Palestinian groups did not appear to be involved.
A 10-story wing of the Taba Hilton (search) collapsed after an explosives-packed car crashed into the lobby and blew up. There were reports of another blast in the hotel, possibly two more.
At least four people were believed to be still buried beneath the debris.
Soon afterward, two trucks exploded in the area of Ras Shitan (search ), a camping area near the town of Nuweiba south of Taba, witnesses said.
Thousands of terrified Israelis, in Sinai for the Jewish holiday week of Sukkot (search), streamed back across the border Friday.
Israeli rescue worker Shahar Zayit told Israel radio Friday morning that after daybreak the devastation at the Taba Hilton — and frantic efforts of hotel guests to escape — became clear.
"We saw really a battle zone — everything on the western side from the lobby and to the roof had collapsed," Zayit said. "I see a lot of things like sheets tied together by people who tried to escape because stairwells also collapsed."
Israeli military rescuer Gefan Naty told The Associated Press it was unlikely any more survivors would be found.
"I don't believe anyone is still alive. We just pulled out one child," about 10 years old, who was dead, Naty said.
Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim (search), told Israel's Army Radio that Palestinian militants apparently were not involved and he suspected Al Qaeda affiliates.
"On the face of things, this is different from what we are familiar with from Palestinian terrorist groups," Boim said.
Mushir al-Masri, a Gaza spokesman for the Hamas (search) militant group, denied Hamas involvement, but said the bombings were "an expected result" of Israeli operations against Palestinians.
Israel's Cabinet met Friday to discuss the attacks, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said he and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed by telephone that they must fight terrorism together.
Meir Frajun said his three children were playing one floor below the lobby when the blast tore through the building. He went down but found only two of them.
"Everything was filled with smoke," Frajun told The Associated Press after crossing into the nearby Israeli resort of Eilat (search). "We were hysterically looking for the child. In the end we found him sitting outside with an Arab guest of the hotel."
The burned-out shell of a vehicle rested inside a meeting room at the Hilton, although officials would not say if it had carried the explosives.
Sheets and blankets tied to the Hilton's balconies showed the frantic efforts by guests to flee. Stairs of a fire escape were twisted perpendicular to the building. Business cards, CDs, bottles and cans, and personal items were scattered around. Burned cars sat outside the hotel.
Naty said a mother and daughter fell from the seventh floor; the mother died of her injuries, but the daughter survived.
Naty said he believed rescue workers could have saved the mother if they been allowed to get to the scene earlier, but Egyptian authorities, for some reason, delayed their arrival.
Egyptian government spokesman Magdy Rady denied it.
"There was no such a thing — no delay at all. Don't believe the Israelis," Rady told the AP.
By late Friday morning, most of the rescue workers at the scene were Israelis, wearing military uniforms or red rescue jackets. A few Egyptian security officials also were present.
The Hilton was built by Israel when it controlled Taba from 1967 to 1989.
Officials initially reported at least 30 dead, but by Friday a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Gideon Meir, said 27 people were confirmed dead. The Egyptian Interior Ministry issued a statement the death toll had reached 22.
An official at Taba hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP 24 people were killed, including five Israelis, seven Egyptians and the rest foreigners whose nationalities were not immediately determined. Most of the deaths were at the Taba Hilton.
The discrepancy in figures could not be reconciled.
More than 100 people were injured, with reports as high as 160, and at least two Britons and an undetermined number of Russians were believed among the casualties.
On Friday, the charred hulks of Toyota pickup trucks could be seen at the two campsites. One was blasted apart, its motor lying on the ground 20 yards away.
Amsalem Farrag, whose uncle and cousin own camps in Ras Shitan, said the two blasts were only five seconds apart. He said the camps were full of vacationing Israelis.
Egyptian government spokesman Magdy Rady suggested the blasts were related to the Israeli military operation in the neighboring Gaza Strip. At least 84 Palestinians have been killed in the nine-day-old offensive to stop militants from firing homemade rockets into Israel.
"I think it is very probable that there is a link between these three explosions," he added. "It is very unlikely they happened by chance."
Sinai's resorts were particularly crowded, with holidays in Egypt and Israel.
No established groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings, but three previously unknown groups claimed separately to have carried out the attacks.
Tawhid Islamic Brigades published a claim on a Web site that has been used frequently for such claims from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. And Jamaa Al-Islamiya Al-Alamiya, or World Islamist Group, called an international news agency in Jerusalem.
A third group that called itself the "Brigades of the Martyr Abdullah Azzam, Al Qaeda, in the Levant Egypt," posted a claim on an Islamic Web site known for running messages purportedly from the Al Qaeda terror network. The claim described the attacks as a message to Palestinians and Muslims everywhere, and the Israeli government and people.
Contributors to those Web sites were praising the explosions, pointing to a recent videotape said to have been issued by Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri (search).
That tape, aired by Al-Jazeera television on Oct. 1, called for militants to organize and attack countries that had given Israel "means of survival." The tape also urged holy warriors to fight Israelis and Americans before they enter Egypt.
The explosions came a month after the Israeli government urged citizens not to visit Egypt, citing a "concrete" terror threat to tourists in an area. The warning, issued Sept. 9 by the counterterrorism center in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, identified the Sinai Peninsula as a potential target.
The security adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Jibril Rajoub (search), told Al-Jazeera television that no Palestinian factions were responsible for the explosions.
Four hours after the blast, Israel's military took command of the scene, according to the army spokeswoman, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, but there were delays in sending Israeli forces and rescue workers across the tense border.
Thousands of frightened Israeli tourists rushed back home, streaming into Eilat just across the border Friday morning.
Many Israeli tourists complained bitterly about Egyptian authorities, who they said prevented tourists from leaving their hotels after the blasts and delayed them at the border. Before the blast, 12,000 to 15,000 Israelis were believed to be in the Sinai.
The two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, but relations have been chilly as a result of Israeli military actions in Palestinian areas.
Egypt upgraded a security alert at the airports in Cairo and in the southern tourist cities of Luxor, Hurghada and Aswan. Police were searching cars coming in and out of Luxor and Hurghada and there was a heavy police presence around hotels.
Taba is the main crossing between Israel and Egypt and the gateway for thousands of Israelis who travel to the hotels and resorts on the Red Sea. Thursday was the last day of the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot, when thousands of Israelis vacation in the Sinai.
Egypt has long struggled with Islamic militants interested in overthrowing the secular government, but has contained the threat with periodic crackdowns and by allowing Islamists some political activity.
The last major militant strike in Egypt was the 1997 massacre of 58 foreign tourists by Islamic extremists in the southern resort town of Luxor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.