Jordan on alert as al-Zarqawi claims blasts

Jordan was on Thursday hunting the masterminds of the worst attacks in the kingdom’s history that killed 57 people and were claimed by the group of homegrown extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The suicide attacks late on Wednesday on one of the closest United States allies in the Middle East targeted three luxury hotels in the Jordanian capital that are favourite haunts of Amman’s expatriate community and Western travellers.

The strikes shattered the relative calm of one of the region’s most stable countries and marked the first time the kingdom has fallen victim to an attack of this magnitude.

The group of Zarqawi, who heads al-Qaeda’s Iraq operations, claimed the attack in an internet statement, saying “our good lions launched ... a new raid ... in Amman”.

The hotels “were turned by the dictator of Jordan as a back garden for the enemies of [our] religion, the Jews and the Crusaders”, the al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of the Two Rivers said, in a reference to King Abdullah II.

Jordan closed all its land borders, excluding the entry points to Israel, for an indefinite period and while its airspace was still open, increased security was in force at airports.
A visible police presence was apparent outside hotels in the capital.

“We cannot confirm it yet for sure but Zarqawi is certainly the prime suspect in the hotel attacks,” Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Moasher said, adding King Abdullah would convene the National Security Council at midday.

Blast hits wedding reception

In the deadliest blast, a suicide bomber blew himself up just after 9pm in a hotel ballroom at the Radisson SAS while a Jordanian wedding reception was in full swing.

Shortly afterwards, a suicide bomber also detonated his charge at the entrance of the Grand Hyatt and a suicide car bomber attacked the three-star Days Inn in the Rabiyeh neighbourhood where the Israeli embassy is located.

The bride and groom both lost their fathers and were themselves injured.

“I lost my father and my father-in-law on my wedding night,” the groom, Ashraf Mohammad, said. “The world has to know that this has nothing to do with Islam.”

“I did not know what had happened. I was frozen. Then there was a movement of panic. People ran, others screamed,” said another witness, who was in the Radisson lobby at the time.

Moasher, who announced the toll of 57 dead, said the majority of victims were Jordanians. Chinese officials said that three Chinese students visiting Jordan had been killed in the strikes, while an Israeli businessman also died.

He said 115 people were wounded, but hospital sources said 300 people were hurt in the attacks.

Abdullah, who was visiting Kazakhstan at the time of the attacks but returned home at dawn, said the deadly blasts were “terrorist acts” and pledged that “justice will pursue the criminals”.

He also ordered security officials to take more measures to protect citizens and foreign visitors so that Jordan “remains an example of security and stability”.

Attacks condemned

United Nations chief Kofi Annan, visiting Saudi Arabia, postponed a trip he had been due to make to Jordan on Thursday after the deadly bomb blasts, his spokesperson said.

The White House condemned the strikes as a “heinous act of terror” against innocent civilians, while US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the attacks were a “great tragedy”.

“Jordan has of course been a tremendous fighter and a tremendous ally in the war on terrorism,” she said, reaffirming the close relationship that has grown between the kingdom and Washington.

Security sources said an oil tanker caught fire at one of the entry points to Amman just before the attacks, taking large numbers of police far away from the site of the blasts in what might have been a diversionary tactic.

Jordan, one of only three Arab states to have diplomatic links to Israel, has in the past broken up a number of al-Qaeda-linked networks suspected of plotting attacks against US and other Western targets in Jordan.

Zarqawi, who has a $25-million bounty on his head, was condemned to death in absentia in April for the 2002 murder of a US diplomat in Amman.

The last militant strike in Jordan was the rocket attack in August targeting US warships in the Red Sea port of Aqaba that the authorities blamed on the al-Qaeda group led by Zarqawi.

The rockets missed two US warships docked in the port, but one hit a warehouse, killing a Jordanian soldier, while another landed across the border in the neighbouring Israeli resort of Eilat.

“We hope that Jordan will always be an oasis of peace in a desert of turmoil,” said Karim Kawar, the Jordanian ambassador to the US.

Among the plots foiled was the so-called millennium plot against tourist sites in Jordan—including the Radisson SAS—during the festivities to mark the year 2000.—AFP

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