As the investigation continues into the triple bombing at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh that killed dozens, we go to Egypt to speak with journalist Jonathan Steele, senior foreign correspondent for the London Guardian. [includes rush transcript]
The Egyptian government has dismissed speculation that a group of Pakistani men were involved in Saturday’s triple bombing in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.
Egyptian police are searching for six missing Pakistanis, but the Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan called it a "routine security check". Police in Sharm el-Sheikh have distributed the photographs and passport numbers of the six men who disappeared from a Cairo hotel earlier this month.
The official death toll in the bombings stands at 64, but hospital officials say the figure could be as high as 88. Most of the casualties were Egyptians. As many as 17 foreigners were killed, most of them Europeans. One American was among the dead.
The attacks, which rocked the resort town on the tip of the Sinai peninsula, appeared well-coordinated. Two massive car bombs went off simultaneously at 1:15 a.m. about two miles apart. One car packed with explosives slammed into the reception of the Ghazala Gardens in Naama Bay where the main strip of hotels are located. The second bomb exploded in a nearby area called the Old Market, frequented mainly by Egyptians working in the town’s resorts. A third bomb detonated about the same time near a beachside walkway. Egyptian officials told the The New York Times they now believe all three explosions were suicide bombings.
More than a thousand people marched through Sharm El Sheikh’s main road Sunday to protest the attacks.
At least five groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings, none of them have been verified. On Monday, Egyptian police fought gun battles in desert mountains near Sharm el-Sheikh in a hunt for Bedouins who authorities say may have links with the bombings. Twenty five people have reportedly been arrested.
The Associated Press is reporting that the heads of security in North and South Sinai provinces have been sacked after having failed to anticipate or prevent the bombings.
Sharm al-Sheikh is one of Egypt’s most heavily guarded towns. It is the winter home of President Hosni Mubarak, hosts numerous summits and is the destination for about a quarter of the tourists who visit Egypt.
An attack on Taba 125 miles north of Sharm El Sheikh on the Israeli border last October ended a long halt in Egyptian militant violence. The last major attack had been in 1997, when Islamic militants killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor.
- Jonathan Steele, Guardian’s Senior Foreign correspondent. He joins us on the line from Sharm El Sheikh.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Sharm El Sheikh to speak with Jonathan Steele, the senior foreign correspondent for The Guardian of London. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jonathan.
JONATHAN STEELE: It’s good to be with you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you. Can you talk about the latest?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, the latest is, as you said, that the Pakistani connection seems increasingly tenuous. A number of senior officials, including the Egyptian ambassador in Pakistan and the Assistant Interior of Ministry, a spokesperson has said that Pakistan is not being sought in connection with the bombings. It’s some security checks. There are other people being sought, but they’re not connected with these bombings. So we’re left really where we are pretty much when this bomb happened.
The police still don’t know really which lead to follow. As you say, there are five different groups that have made claims, but no evidence that any of them could be serious. They may or may not be, but there’s nothing to point to it other than just purely the web statements. And I think most people now assume that the link is more with the bombings last October, which appears to have been done by local Egyptian militants of one kind. It’s not quite sure exactly what their purpose was, although obviously Taba is very close to Israel, so it would be connected with the Egyptian-Israeli issue. Egypt, after all, is the country that is most closely connected in the Arab world with Israel. It still has diplomatic relations. And people therefore think it’s not to do with al-Qaeda, it’s not to do with Osama bin Laden; it’s much more to do with Egyptian militants.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Steele, after the Taba bombings, there was a massive roundup of people, I think something like 2,500 Bedouins. Human Rights Watch put out a report talking about torture and the problems with this roundup. What do you know about this?
JONATHAN STEELE: Well, yes, I think the figure is actually a little bit higher than that. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which is an independent watchdog body, talked about 3,000 people being arrested, of whom 200 are still being held. Some of the wives and family of those people recently held a street demonstration to protest that, when in fact almost by coincidence just on Sunday the second stage of a trial of two people who were rounded up in that big sweep was going on in the city of Ismailia near the Suez Canal. Now observers — independent observers who were monitoring that trial are saying not only that the people are protesting their innocence, but that they claim that they have been tortured.
When the trial opened up in early July, the defendants showed injuries to journalists that they say they sustained under torture, and the judge actually did an order, medical tests be taken to see exactly when the injuries were sustained. But at the court session this Sunday, just the other day, the court was told that the government authorities hadn’t yet issued the correct medical papers to allow doctors to examine these defendants, who again on Sunday claimed that they had been tortured. The claims obviously need to be verified, but there is a general — a general amount of evidence that torture is, if not routine, quite frequent in Egyptian police stations and prisons, and therefore these claims may well be credible. Certainly the families of these people are saying that they were just rounded up at home, that they had no political backgrounds, no criminal records and that they are really, in other words, just the four guys or the scapegoats for a system which wants to show that something is being done, but that is perhaps floundering in really getting to the bottom of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Steele, about the significance of Sharm El Sheikh being the home of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak?
JONATHAN STEELE: I think that’s very important. And the other very important point is that these bombings happened on July the 23rd, which is a very important national day here. It’s the 53rd anniversary of the 1952 revolution which overthrew the monarchy and brought in the army officers’ regime, which was then led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. So that is a very important symbolic day, plus the fact that Mubarak has a residence here, also because he has tried to turn this into a big showcase city, not just for tourism, but for international conferences. Many Arab and international summits have been held here, including with President Bill Clinton, and so on. So the strike at heart of the city, which is much better guarded, I must say, than most Egyptian cities, was a deliberate coup, I think, by the people who planned this bombing.
AMY GOODMAN: And is it true that Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, your prime minister, also has a home in Sharm El Sheikh?
JONATHAN STEELE: No, he doesn’t have a home here, but he has twice spent the new year’s holiday here in a private villa with his family. So he certainly likes this place, and a great deal of British tourists come here [inaudible] 9,000 at the time of the bombing on Saturday. Many of them have left, but not all. And there’s still quite a number here, but I think the most tragic thing at the moment now is the search for the missing. Out of the 17 foreigners killed, it seems that as many as 11 may be British, and families are now coming out here with photographs, desperately walking around the cafes and restaurants, asking people whether they could have seen their sons or their — their children, parents in one case, a grandmother in another. Their children are looking for them. So it is a very desperate scene, because this really was a very popular place, particularly among British tourists.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Steele, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Jonathan Steele of The Guardian in London, speaking to us from Sharm El Sheikh.