MARRAKESH (Reuters) – A bomb killed 14 people including foreigners in Morocco’s bustling tourist destination of Marrakesh, officials said on Thursday, in an attack that bore the hallmark of Islamist militants.
The blast ripped through a cafe overlooking Marrakesh’s Jamaa el-Fnaa square, a spot that is often packed with foreign tourists. A Reuters photographer said he saw rescuers pulling dismembered bodies from the wreckage.
If the bombing is the work of Islamist militants, it will be the first time they have carried out a major attack in Morocco since 2003, when a series of suicide bombings in the commercial capital, Casablanca, killed more than 45 people.
The latest blast is likely to hurt Morocco’s tourism trade — a major source of revenue — which is already struggling to recover from the effects of the global downturn.
Two residents in Marrakesh who were near the square told Reuters the explosion was carried out by a suicide bomber, but there was no immediate confirmation of this.
“I heard a massive blast. The first and second floors of the building were destroyed,” said one local woman, who did not want to be identified. “Some witnesses said they have seen a man carrying a bag entering the cafe before the blast occurred.”
The cafe is in the Marrakesh medina, or old city, which is designated by the United Nation’s cultural arm as a World Heritage Site. It is usually packed with stalls, story-tellers and snake-charmers seeking to attract tourists.
“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 and 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.
The roof over the cafe’s upstairs terrace had been ripped off by the force of the explosion and pieces of plaster and electrical wires hung from the ceiling.
“I heard a very loud blast in the square. It occurred inside Argana cafe. When I approached the scene, I saw shredded bodies being pulled out of the cafe,” the Reuters photographer said.
“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.”
The explosion took place at a time of growing concern about stability in the Middle East, rocked by months of political unrest and mass protests against autocratic leaders.
“People are panicking. This is a terrorist act and it will affect the economy and tarnish the country’s image,” said a trader on Morocco’s stock exchange. The market fell more than 3 percent on the blast but recovered to close down 1.6 percent.
The Interior Ministry said the explosion killed 14 people, including an unspecified number of foreigners, and injured another 20 people.
“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 ministry said in a statement carried by the official MAP news agency.
King Mohammed, Morocco’s ruler, ordered a speedy and transparent investigation into what he described as a “criminal explosion,” the agency reported.
An official source had earlier told Reuters it appeared the blast was caused by gas canisters in the cafe catching fire.
Security experts said the attack was in line with Islamist militants’ previous attempts — most of them disrupted by security services — to undermine Morocco’s rulers by targeting the tourism industry.
“The majority of plots are detected in their early stages because Moroccan authorities retain a very effective network of informants right down to street level,” said Anna Murison of Exclusive Analysis, a consultancy.
“However, the regular recurrence of plots …. mean it is likely that a few will slip through the net,” she said.
Last week, men claiming to be Moroccan members of al Qaeda’s north African wing appeared in a video posted on YouTube threatening to attack Moroccan interests.
A masked speaker, who identified himself as Abu Abdulrahman, said the planned attacks were to avenge the detention of Islamists by Moroccan authorities.
(Additional reporting by Souhail Karam and Zakia Abdennebi in Rabat and William Maclean in Bradford, England; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Maria Golovnina)