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Jordan suicide bombings leave 57 dead

Nov. 10, 2005

By JAMAL HALABY, the Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan -- Suicide bombers carried out nearly simultaneous attacks on three U.S.-based hotels in the Jordanian capital Wednesday night, killing at least 57 people and wounding 115 in what appeared to be an al-Qaida assault on an Arab kingdom with close ties to the United States.

The explosions hit the Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS and Days Inn hotels just before 9 p.m. Jordan time. One of the blasts took place inside a wedding hall where 300 guests were celebrating. Black smoke rose into the night, and wounded victims stumbled from the hotels.

"We thought it was fireworks for the wedding, but I saw people falling to the ground," said Ahmed, a wedding guest at the five-star Radisson who did not give his surname. "I saw blood. There were people killed. It was ugly."

Jordan's deputy prime minister, Marwan Muasher, said there was no claim of responsibility but that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was a prime suspect.

A U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the strong suspicion is that al-Zarqawi was involved because of his known animosity for Jordanian monarchy and the fact that it was a suicide attack, one of his hallmarks.

In February, U.S. intelligence indicated that Osama bin Laden was in contact with al-Zarqawi, enlisting him to conduct attacks outside of Iraq, noted another U.S. counterterrorism official who also spoke on condition of anonymity. Jordan has arrested scores of Islamic militants for plotting to carry out attacks and has also sentenced many militants to death in absentia, including al-Zarqawi.

Jordan's capital, Amman, has become a base for Westerners who fly in and out of neighboring Iraq for work. The city's main luxury hotels downtown are often full of American and British officials and contractors enjoying the relative quiet of the city.

"Obviously this is something Jordan is not used to," Muasher told CNN. "We have been lucky so far in avoiding those incidents." He said most of the casualties appeared to be Jordanians.

A State Department official said there was no information on any American casualties. A Jordanian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media, said the dead included at least three Asians, possibly Chinese.

The first blast was reported at about 8:50 p.m. at the five-star Grand Hyatt. The explosion took place in the lobby, an American businessman said, and shattered its stone entrance.

An Associated Press reporter counted seven bodies being taken away and many more wounded being carried out on stretchers. Prime Minister Adnan Badran later arrived at the scene.

A few minutes later and a short distance away, police reported the explosion at the wedding hall inside the Radisson, with at least five killed and at least 20 wounded.

The Radisson is popular with American and Israeli tourists and was a target of several foiled al-Qaida plots, including a conspiracy to attack U.S. and Israeli tourists during the kingdom's millennium celebrations. Israel's ambassador to Jordan, Yaakov Hadas, told Israel TV from Amman there were no reports of Israeli casualties.

The third explosion, at the Days Inn, happened after a car packed with explosives approached the hotel, Muasher said. He said the car could not cross a protective barrier so it detonated outside. As a result, the casualties at the Days Inn were not so extensive as at the other hotels, he said.

Muasher reported 57 killed and 115 wounded in the three bombings, with the worst damage at the Radisson because the suicide bomber got inside the wedding party of Jordanians.

The White House said the United States was prepared to offer help in the investigation.

Security was beefed up across the capital, especially around hotels and diplomatic missions, police said. Armed policemen and cars patrolled the streets, and Badran declared Thursday a national holiday, apparently in order to allow tightened security measures to take hold.

The date of Wednesday's attack, Nov. 9, would be written as 9/11 in the Middle East, which puts the day before the month.

Jordanian authorities have foiled numerous attacks in the kingdom. In July, prosecutors indicted five Jordanians in an alleged conspiracy to attack intelligence agents, tourists and hotels in Amman.

U.S. officials believe al-Zarqawi and bin Laden's operations chief, Abu Zubaydah, were chief organizers of a foiled plot to bomb the Radisson SAS. The attack was to take place during millennium celebrations, but Jordanian authorities stopped it in late 1999. Abu Zubaydah was captured in 2002 in Pakistan.

The last major terror attack blamed on Islamic militants was the July 7 bombings of the London transit system that killed 56 people, including four bombers. The most recent major attack linked to al-Qaida was the Madrid subway bombings that killed 191 people on March 11, 2004.

Associated Press reporters Dale Gavlak and Shafika Mattar in Amman and Katherine Shrader in Washington contributed to this report.