Deadly Moroccan bomb was detonated remotely

Morocco’s interior minister says that initial results of an investigation show that a bomb which killed 15 people in a crowded tourist cafe was packed with nails and was set off remotely.

While Interpol, the international police agency, had called Thursday’s attack on a crowded tourist cafe in a historic Marrakech square a suspected suicide bombing, the minister, Taieb Cherqaoui, said that findings so far point to a bomb triggered from a distance.

“This was not a suicide attack … and it appears the bomb was set of remotely,” Cherqaoui told a meeting of government commission in Rabat.

He said the bomb contained aluminium nitrate among other components.

Cherqaoui’s remarks were carried by the official MAP news agency.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement earlier that the death toll from Thursday’s bombing was 15, and that seven of the dead have been identified. More than 20 people were wounded. Most of those killed were foreigners.

No one has claimed responsibility for Morocco’s deadliest attack since 2003.

The powerful blast at the Argana cafe struck the heart of Marrakech’s bustling old quarter, in the historic Djemma el-Fna square, one of the top attractions in a country that depends heavily on tourism.

Government spokesman Khalid Naciri has told the AP it was too soon to lay blame, but he noted that that Morocco regularly dismantles cells linked to al-Qaida and has disrupted several plots.

Dr. Hicham Nejmi, head of emergency care at Marrakech’s main Tofail hospital, said 11 people remained hospitalised. One tourist was in critical condition, and several others had lost limbs, he said.

Relatives of a 60-year-old French woman who died said they had travelled to Marrakech to celebrate the birthdays of two nieces, aged 18 and 21, who were injured in the explosion. The relatives declined to give their names.

Police sought to restore calm to the jewel of Morocco’s tourism industry as investigators try to determine who was behind the blast, searching for clues and keeping back onlookers gawking at the dramatic sight, strewn with flowers for the dead.

“Yesterday the plaza was full, and we had just passed in front of the cafe. … There was a big detonation, a very big detonation, which made us stay still and lower our heads. We saw a very big plume of smoke, and a lot of objects go up in the air,” said Stephane Le Pretre, a 46-year-old tourist from Rouen in northwest France, travelling with his children.

Visitors gather on the iconic square to watch snake charmers, storytellers, money master, jugglers and musicians, filling the cafes that ring the square on the route to the city’s major open-air souk, or market. On Thursday, they watched sheets being lain across bodies of the dead.

“We slept very badly last night, didn’t eat much. We are stressed, we feel that we could have been there,” Le Pretre said.

On the city’s outskirts, police set up checkpoints to search vehicles and check identity papers of their occupants as they sought to tighten a dragnet against anyone possibly linked to the bombing.

Authorities were struggling to coordinate their response to the attack. Some questioned whether it would prompt a new security crackdown such that which followed suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003, or undercut constitutional changes that King Mohamed VI recently pledged in response to protests.

Naciri said the attack would not thwart the king’s promised reforms.

The Israeli consul in Shanghai, Jackie Eldan, identified two of the dead as a Jewish couple who lived there – an Israeli citizen and her Moroccan husband. They were visiting his parents in Casablanca and had taken a day trip, leaving their 3-year-old son with his grandparents.

“They took a day off to go to Marrakech and left the child with the family. To their misfortune, they were in the cafe on the second floor” when the bombing hit, Eldan told Israeli station Army Radio on Friday.

Amid weeks of turmoil across the Arab world, tourists said they had been particularly drawn to Morocco – which has seen little of the upheaval that has hit places like Tunisia, Libya, Syria or Yemen.

“Many tourists had been coming here because so many other countries have been unstable,” said Luca Pellerano, a 30-year-old Italian tourist, during a late-night stop at the square to see the devastation after returning from a trip into the Atlas mountains nearby.

Abdellatif Benyayh, an orange juice vendor on the square, recalled how he was selling dates and almonds to a group of Belgians when the blast went off.

“The earth under my feet shook, my legs grew weak and I fell down. I saw a leg in an espadrille sandal fly off the cafe’s balcony,” he said. “My ears rang, my head ached, and the customers ran away.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the “cowardly attack” and promised support for Morocco, a steady US ally in the fight against terrorism.

France, Morocco’s former colonial ruler, has sent psychologists and extra staff to the consulate in Marrakech, and is helping investigate, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

“We don’t have the least indication or suspicion that French interests or people were targeted,” Valero said.

Interpol, in a statement Friday, offered its help in the investigation – including disaster victim identification specialists and support from terrorism investigators.

Al-Qaida’s affiliate in North Africa stages regular attacks and kidnappings in neighboring Algeria. Morocco, however, has been mostly peaceful since it was hit by five simultaneous terrorist bombings in Casablanca in 2003 that killed 33 people and a dozen bombers.

Moroccan authorities have rounded up thousands of purported terror suspects in recent years and while they “regularly discover terrorist cells … nothing led us to foresee an act of this magnitude,” Naciri said.

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