Marrakesh 'terrorist' blast kills 14
A Marrakesh explosion branded a "terrorist" attack by Morocco and France killed 14 people Thursday, including French nationals, government officials said as police went on high alert.
With King Mohammed IV ordering an urgent probe, a local official said the explosion at a cafe on the popular Jamaa el-Fna square, a cultural heritage site that draws a million tourists a year, may have been the work of a suicide bomber.
Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui put the death toll at 14 -- 11 foreigners and three Moroccans. Twenty-three people were wounded, he told journalists in Marrakesh.
Medical sources said eight of the dead were French.
An official at the Marrakesh prefecture said the midday blast "could have been the work of a suicide-bomber", adding: "We found nails in one of the bodies."
But Cherkaoui would not confirm the theory. "I cannot say it was a suicide bomber," he said. But, "I can assure you that we continue to fight terrorism with all legal means. The criminals implicated in this act will be brought to justice."
Rabat and Paris condemned what they said was a "terrorist" attack on the cafe, a favourite haunt for foreign visitors to the touristic city about 350 kilometres (220 miles) south of the capital.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who spoke to the Moroccan king on the telephone, branded it as "heinous, cruel and cowardly", said his Elysee office, which confirmed there were French casualties without saying how many.
The explosion happened "on the terrace" of the popular Argana cafe, Latifa Idrissi, the wife of 28-year-old waiter Yassine Bouzidi who was killed in the blast, told AFP.
One client recalled: "An individual came into the cafe. He ordered a glass of orange juice, and several minutes later, he blew himself up."
The facade of the cafe and the first floor were severely damaged, and tables and chairs strewn around the terrace.
A student who was inside the cafe recalled hearing three loud detonations and seeing victims flee.
"A woman was blown into the air and I saw a man completely disfigured," the student told AFP by telephone. "Then I saw a girl 14 or 15 years of age, she was also disfigured. The three were foreigners," he said.
Morocco's Communications Minister Khalid Naciri told AFP this was "a terrorist act".
"Morocco is confronted by the same threats as in May 2003," he said, adding the country would react "with diligence".
The latest attack was the deadliest in the North African monarchy since 33 people were killed by 12 suicide bombers in Casablanca in 2003. An attempted attack in 2007 was thwarted and one of three would-be bombers killed.
Morocco, a country of 32 million people whose economy relies heavily on tourism, has largely been spared the pro-change revolts that have swept the Arab world since the end of last year.
But there have been three protests since February to demand reform, prompting King Mohammed to announce major political changes, including greater judicial independence.
In mid-April, he pardoned political prisoners, including Islamists, in a gesture of appeasement.
An extreme Islamist group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is active in countries in the region.
Moroccan security forces have been deployed in the country in the wake of the blast.
A senior police official said cordons had been erected at the entrances to Morocco's main cities, "to ensure the internal security of the country".
French intelligence and anti-terrorism experts will travel to Marrakesh on Friday to help in the probe, a source said.
Britain, Germany, Spain and the Council of Europe rights watchdog also condemned the attack.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described it as "utterly reprehensible, and said alleged links to terrorism were worrying.
"It was a cynical and abominable act and we condemn it," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement, while Spain's foreign ministry expressed "its absolute condemnation of the terrorist attack on Marrakesh".
Council of Europe chief Thorbjorn Jagland described Morocco as an important partner and said: "We are ready to intensify our cooperation, including in the field of combating terrorism."
© 2011 AFP