Deadly Explosions Hit Cafe in Morocco

At least 14 people were killed and 20 injured Thursday – most of them tourists – when an explosion tore through a cafe in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, the state-run news agency said.

Initial clues gathered by investigators indicate that the blast is the result of an attack, according to the Maghreb Arabe Presse, citing the Interior Ministry. The attack appeared to target foreign visitors and could threaten Morocco’s roughly $8 billion tourism industry, a mainstay of its economy; more than 9 million people visited the country last year, according to statistics from the state news agency.

“Analysis of the early evidence collected at the site of the blast that occurred on Thursday at a cafe in Marrakesh confirms the theory of an attack,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement carried by the official MAP news agency. (Reuters)

Several French nationals were among the wounded, and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe issued a stiff condemnation of what he called a “barbarian terrorist attack which nothing can justify… Such an awful act can only bring indignation and undeserved condemnation. All light must be shed on this revolting crime, officials prosecuted, tried and punished,” said Juppe, who said French authorities will provide assistance to French nationals in Marrakesh. (CNN)

Witnesses told CNN the blast occurred at Cafe Argana in Place Jemaa el Fna, the popular bazaar and square that draws thousands of tourists every year.

“We were walking around the souks, right around the corner from Cafe Argana. We heard a gigantic boom, and everyone immediately starting running towards the square to see what happened,” according to a German tourist who was about 50 meters from the cafe when the blast occurred.The woman, who didn’t want her name used, told CNN the top floor and terrace of the cafe were “ripped apart” and hundreds of people ran from the area when they realized there was an explosion. The witness said rescuers were dispatched to the scene and the news agency and police opened an investigation to determine the exact causes.

“There was a huge bang,” one tourist in the square, Andy Birnie of London, told The Associated Press. “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” (New York Times)

“You can’t find a more emblematic target than Jamaa el-Fnaa square,” said a Frenchman who owns a restaurant in the city. “With this attack amid the worrying unrest in the region, tourism will hit the doldrums for some time,” said the businessman, who did not want his name published.” (Reuters)

“I heard a very loud blast in the square. It occurred inside Argana cafe,” a Reuters photographer said. “When I approached the scene, I saw shredded bodies being pulled out of the cafe. The first floor bore the brunt of the damage while the ground floor was almost intact… There are a lot of police who, with forensics, are sifting through the debris.” (Reuters)

Moroccan government spokesman Khalid Naciri told French television that Thursday’s casualties involved a number of nationalities but he would not confirm any as yet. “We worked… on the hypothesis that this could… be accidental. But initial results of the investigation confirm that we are confronted with a true criminal act,” he said. Mr. Naciri later said that “terrorists” were behind the attack but added that it was “too soon” to give more details. (BBC)

A medical source told AFP news agency that 11 of the dead were foreigners, including five women, but this has not been independently confirmed. Moroccan TV said six French nationalists had been killed. Paris has confirmed that there were French victims, but gave no further details.

The office of President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the attack as “cruel and cowardly.” King Mohammed has ordered a “speedy and transparent inquiry” into the attack and demanded the public be informed of the results, a royal comminique said. (BBC)

It is not immediately known whether the attack was linked to the unrest across the Arab world or militant activity, although there have been some protests in Morocco lately. Thousands of Moroccans held a peaceful demonstration nationwide Sunday, calling for a radical overhaul of the country’s governance before a new constitution is unveiled in June by King Mohammed VI. The march was organized by the Facebook youth movement Fevrier 20. The group said its members would not accept the present draft constitution because it was written by the king’s own people. It denounced his decision to refer the new constitution to a committee he appointed.

King Mohammed announced last month he would give up some of his wide-scale powers and make the judiciary independent – the latter a particularly hot subject in Morocco. Calls for an end to political detention and questions about the king’s personal business activities were also on protesters’ banners. There was visible resentment at the royal family’s business operations, controlled by its holding company SNI. There were also groups protesting about the prices of basic household items.

The government is also facing violent challenges from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African branch of the terrorism network, which in recent years has gained a foothold in neighboring countries, and from the separatists in Western Sahara, a Moroccan-governed territory on the Atlantic coast.

The separatists, known as the Polisario Front and based in Algeria, have engaged in a simmering, decades-long conflict with the government. In November, in the desert city of Laayoune, knife-wielding gangs killed 11 unarmed Moroccan security officers.

The bombing on Thursday was the largest in Morocco since 2003, when 12 suicide bombers attacked five targets in Casablanca, killing 33 people; at the time, Moroccan officials blamed Al Qaeda for the attack.

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