Rabat: A massive terrorist bombing ripped through a cafe popular among tourists in the Moroccan city of Marrakech on Thursday, killing 15 people including foreigners and wounding 20, officials said.
The blast in the iconic Djemma el-Fna square was Morocco's deadliest attack in eight years.
Morocco has been the target of several plots by the North African branch of al-Qaida, and is also home to local militant groups. Government spokesman Khalid Naciri said by telephone that it was too soon to say who was behind what he called a terrorist attack.
The explosion just before noon tore the facade off the two-story terracotta-colored Argana cafe, leaving awnings dangling. Panicked passersby dragged away bodies and tried to put out flames with fire extinguishers, witnesses said.
The square, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a focal point for the hordes of western tourists who visit the central city of Marrakech seeking a taste of the exotic in this Muslim kingdom on the Atlantic Ocean. The square is known for its snake charmers, fire breathers and old town, or medina.
Naciri said that the 14 slain people came from a variety of countries but he did not say which ones. Twenty others were hurt.
"We worked for more than an hour, maybe less, on the hypothesis that this could eventually be accidental. But initial results of the investigation confirm that we are confronted with a true criminal act," Naciri told France-24 television.
He said that more about the bombers' methods should be known within hours.
"There was a huge bang, and lots of smoke went up, there was debris raining down from the sky. Hundreds of people were running in panic, some towards the cafe, some away from the square. The whole front of the cafe is blown away," witness Andy Birnie, of north London, told the AP by telephone. Birnie is honeymooning in Marrakech.
"It was lunchtime so the square was very busy. We had just walked into the square, but were shielded by some stalls," Birnie said.
King Mohamed VI offered condolences to victims and ordered instructed the interior and justice ministers to ensure an investigation "to determine the causes, the reasons and the goals of this criminal explosion," MAP reported, quoting a statement from the Royal Cabinet.
At least two French were among victims of the attack, judicial officials in Paris said, and the Paris prosecutor's office opened an investigation. It was not immediately clear whether the French were among the dead or injured.
France is the former colonial ruler of Morocco, a magnet for tourists from around Europe.
The nationalities of the victims were not immediately clear. The Spanish foreign ministry said it wasn't aware of any Spaniards among the victims but that its consul in Casablanca was making inquiries.
Morocco is largely calm but was hit by terrorist bombings in Casablanca in 2003 that killed 45 people, including the suicide bombers. Moroccan authorities have regularly rounded up terror suspects since then and have been on alert for terrorist activity.
The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, or GICM, a militant group was believed linked to those attacks. The GICM has also been implicated in the deadly attacks in Madrid in March 2004.
Al-Qaida has an affiliate operating in North Africa that stages regular attacks and kidnappings in neighboring Algeria. Morocco has said in the past that it has dismantled several al-Qaida plots. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb currently holds four Frenchmen hostage after kidnapping them in Niger last year, and recently released new images and audio recordings of their voices.
Portuguese tourist Alexandre Carvalho, a 34 year-old call center worker from southern Portugal said, "I had just arrived at the square, the area where most cafes are located. Suddenly I heard this massive explosion, I had my back turned to it, I turned around to see it the explosion had happened on the veranda of a cafe.
"There were at least 10 injured people, lots of debris, things flying up in the air. I saw people in a panic running towards the area with fire extinguishers, some people being carried away. I believe the injured were mostly tourists, judging by what they were wearing," Carvalho told by telephone.
First Published: Friday, April 29, 2011, 00:38