Suicide bombers carried out nearly simultaneous attacks on three US-based hotels in the Jordanian capital last night, killing at least 57 people and wounding at least 115 in an al-Qaida-style assault on the Arab kingdom with close ties to the United States and a border with Iraq.
Three Chinese were among those killed in the attacks, all from China’s elite military training university, the Foreign Ministry said today.
A delegation from the Defence University of the Chinese Peole’s Liberation Army was visiting Jordan and staying at a hotel in the capital, the ministry said on its Web site.
The university cultivates officers and is connected to the powerful Central Military Commission.
Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher said that most of those killed were Jordanians but did not give a full breakdown of nationalities in the strikes in the explosions that rocked the Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS and Days Inn hotels just before 9pm
Muasher said there was no claim of responsibility but that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was a “prime suspect".
Briton Steve Olderman was attending a business dinner at the Grand Hyatt when the explosion hit.
“We heard an explosion and the whole hotel filled with smoke, and suddenly we found ourselves outside the hotel,” said Olderman, still looking startled.
“It was pretty horrific. We were sitting beside a huge plate glass window and it just exploded beside us,” said Olderman, who was staying at the Radisson, one of the other targeted hotels. “We were lucky to get out alive.”
Famed Syrian movie director Mustafa Aqad was among the injured and his daughter was killed, the official added.
Initial police reports showed that the suicide bomber at the Grand Hyatt was possibly Iraqi, the official said. He said the middle-aged man, strapped with explosives under his Western-style suit, was stopped by suspicious security officials in the hotel’s lobby.
Speaking in an Iraqi accent, the man said he was “looking around,” and then blew himself up, the official added, saying hotel cameras had someshots of him.
Muasher said Jordan’s land borders had been sealed and there are “more measures which will be undertaken soon.” He did not elaborate.
He said there had been no arrests yet, though security forces had fanned out across the capital and roads were closed. A security official said authorities were hunting suspects believed to have assisted in the attacks or looking for a potential sleeper cell that could carr out more attacks.
Muasher said two suicide bombers attacked the Hyatt and the nearby Radisson SAS. The Days Inn attack was carried out by an explosives-laden vehicle that blew up outside the hotel after failing to cross a police line.
Muasher said most of the victims at the Radisson were Jordanians attending a wedding banquet in a ground-floor reception hall, where a man strapped with explosives infiltrated the crowd.
“We thought it was fireworks for the wedding but I saw people falling to the ground,” said Ahmed, a wedding guest who did not give his surname. “I saw blood. There were people killed. It was ugly.”
The groom suffered serious injuries; the bride was not hurt.
Amin Omar, a concierge at the Radisson, said Jordanian security forces have taken over the hotel and all foreign and local guests have been accounted for and returned to their rooms. He had no details on how many people were killed or wounded in the blast.
King Abdullah II – who cut short an official visit to Kazakhstan and was returning home Wednesday night – condemned the attacks.
“The hand of justice will get to the criminals who targeted innocent secure civilians with their cowardly acts,” he said in a statement carried by the official Petra news agency.
Following the attacks, security forces, including special anti-terror police units, fanned out across the Jordanian capital city after the attack. Police swiftly set up road blocks across Amman, where they searched cars and checked passengers’ identification.
Special anti-terrorism units in armoured vehicles sealed off streets around diplomatic missions, government offices and hotels across the city. Police said Amman was virtually cut off from other cities because all highways leading to the capital were shut.
Prime Minister Adnan Badran declared today a national holiday – apparently in order to allow tightened security measures to take hold.
Later, Badran met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who is visiting Jordan. “These attacks carry the trademark of al-Qaida,” Zebari told reporters.
In Washington, a counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said that it’s “likely” that Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was behind the attacks, although authorities had not yet reached any conclusions. Al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, has been sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan.
A contributor on a militant Web site hailed al-Zarqawi, assuming he had a role in the attacks.
“Strike, blow up, don’t have mercy, turn it upside down, heal our hearts. By God, striking the Jordanian entity, the foreigners, the Zionists, is more dear to us than striking America,” Abu Hajjar al-Shami wrote.
The hotels are frequented by American and European businessmen and diploats. The Radisson, in particular, is popular with Israeli tourists, and was a target of several foiled al-Qaida plots in the past, including a conspiracy to attack US and Israeli tourists during the kingdom’s millennium celebrations.
The American, Israeli and British embassies had no immediate reports of casualties among their citizens.