CAIRO – A group of French teenagers on a school trip were hit hard by a bombing at a landmark Cairo bazaar, which killed a 17-year-old girl on the tour and wounded at least a dozen other students, the mayor of the teens' hometown said Monday.
Sunday night's explosion from a homemade bomb raised worries in Egypt of wider damage to the country's vital tourism industry, which is already suffering from the global economic meltdown.
The blast went off in the busy main square of the sprawling Khan el-Khalili market, which was packed with tourists and Egyptians — including the tour of more than 40 high school students from the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret.
It appeared the bomb went off near the French students, who bore the brunt of the blast. The 17-year-old girl, who has not been identified, was killed. Among the 24 wounded, 19 were French — most from the tour group.
The students were nearing the end of their trip when the attack occurred, said Patrick Balkany, mayor of Levallois-Perret. He said some of the students have serious wounds, and other students suffered psychological shock from the "horror" of the experience.
"We are faced with a dreadful drama," Balkany told RTL radio on Monday.
France's prime minister, Francois Fillon, denounced what he called an "odious attack."
"There are people who want to destabilize Egypt, which is one of the moderate countries in the region," Fillon told journalists in Paris. "It is an illustration of the violence that we must eradicate."
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, which was the first against tourists in Egypt in three years. Islamic extremists have in the past attacked tourists in an attempt to hurt Egypt's biggest source of income.
Khan el-Khalili — a 650-year-old bazaar of narrow, winding alleys — is one of the top tourist spots in Cairo, often crowded with foreigners coming to shop at its souvenir stores, hang out in its cafes or visit its numerous old mosques and Islamic monuments. In April 2005, a suicide bomber in the market killed himself, two French citizens and an American.
Sunday's bomb was packed with TNT and explosive black powder, said Egypt's state-run news agency, MENA. A government statement said it was placed under a bench in a busy square in front of one of Cairo's most revered shrines, the Hussein mosque. Some security officials, however, said the explosive had been thrown into the square, and it was unclear which version was correct.
Security officials said three people were in custody. Authorities safely detonated a second bomb that was found. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Among the wounded were 19 French, a German, three Saudis and an Egyptian, according to a hospital report. Three French teenagers remained in the intensive care unit Monday. One had a lung injury, another broken legs and the third suffered a ruptured ear drum.
Most of the French students returned home Monday, and 10 others who suffered light injuries were expected to follow later in the day or Tuesday, Balkany said.
One of the injured Saudis said he and his two friends were heading toward the Hussein mosque when the blast went off behind them.
"The minute we stepped out of the taxi and walked a few steps, an explosion rocked the area," said Mohammed Behees, a 31-year-old teacher from Riyadh who was injured by shattered glass.
Egypt fought a long war with Islamist militants in the 1990s, culminating in a massacre of more than 50 tourists in Luxor in 1997. The rebels were largely defeated, and there have been few attacks since then in the Nile valley.
But from 2004 to 2006, a string of bombings against resorts in the Sinai Peninsula killed 120 people, including in the Sinai's main resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
Still, tourism has proven resilient after those attacks, with foreigners still pouring in for Egypt's resorts and antiquity. Tourism brought in $10.8 billion in fiscal 2007-2008, making it Egypt's top money earner.
Several shopowners in Khan el-Khalili said they now worried that foreigners will avoid the bazaar. "I was shocked and I don't have to be a tourist to be afraid — it was our safety at risk too," said Ahmed Magdy, who works in a shop selling scarves, bellydance outfits and souvenirs. "There is definitely concern over our business, but I hope that this is phase is like an illness, and we'll recover ... we won't die."
Sunday's attack is likely to have little long-term impact, said officials at tour operator Travco Group and analysts at Cairo-based investment banks EFG-Hermes and Beltone Financial.
More damaging is the world economic crisis, which is forcing many in Egypt's prime European markets to stay home rather than travel for vacation.
The global slowdown is expected to "bring down tourism arrivals by 15-20 percent in 2009," said Wael Ziada, head of Egypt research at EFG-Hermes, a sizable decline from the 12.8 million tourists that Egypt's tourism minister recently said arrived last year.