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At Least 13 Killed in Back-to-Back Terrorist Attacks

Aired November 28, 2002 - 08:00   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of significant news from overseas right now. At least 13 people, we are told, have been killed in back to back terrorist attacks targeting Israeli tourists. Both occurred in Kenya. One intended, apparently, for an Israeli charter jet upon takeoff. The other at a nearby hotel popular among Israelis. In fact, a number of Israelis had just arrived at that hotel when suicide bombers hit it in a car and inside by walking.
Matthew Chance first up from Tel Aviv now. Reaction of the passengers who did arrive safely to the tune of about 260 on board that plane.

Matthew, what are you hearing?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Bill, 261 according to the airline officials we've spoken to. And a great deal of relief here being witnessed by us as these passengers disembarked from the aircraft that narrowly missed that disaster and made their way through the passport checks into this lounge, where they were greeted in very emotional scenes by their loved ones, their friends who had, of course, heard from the news media about what had happened.

The passengers themselves weren't told until half an hour before they touched down here in Tel Aviv exactly how close they were to this potential disaster and, indeed, what kind of tragedy they left behind on the ground in Kenya.

We managed to speak to a number of the passengers as they came off the plane through to us here to hear what their stories were, to hear what their experiences were as they took off from Mombasa.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When we took off, we didn't take off straight away. We waited on the runway. And then we weren't sure why. We thought there was some kind of delay, maybe there was -- and then when we took off we heard a noise on the left hand side of the plane and someone that was sitting on the left hand side of the plane said there was smoke. And then everyone was like no, it's probably nothing and only towards the end of the flight they told us what had happened.


CHANCE: Well, towards the end of that flight, as that lady mentioned, the captain came across the public address system, told them that they believe some missiles had been fired at the plane in the moments after takeoff from Mombasa. The pilot also told them about what had happened in the hotel, Paradise, in Mombasa, at which many of the passengers had been staying. At that point, a number of Israeli military aircraft joined the wings of this Israeli charter airliner, escorting it through Israeli air space to safety here in Tel Aviv -- Bill.

HEMMER: Matthew, that captain, the pilot, rather, described a little bit of a blow being felt on board that plane. Did passengers describe the same thing?

CHANCE: Well, the pilot, according to the airline officials we've spoken to, said that he saw some flashes outside the window of the plane. He said he understood, at this point we understand that he sort of understood what was happening. At the same time, though, he made a decision not to attempt emergency landing in Mombasa, but instead to continue his journey on to Tel Aviv.

The passengers on board, well, they're pretty much divided. I have to say, the great majority of the people who we spoke to say that they didn't suspect anything untoward on the takeoff of this flight, although, again, as we've heard, some of them say they felt the plane shudder. Some of them say they saw fire or some smoke outside the left hand side of the plane.

Again, it wasn't until the very end that all those passengers on board, some 261 people plus the crew, were told exactly what had happened -- Bill.

HEMMER: Matthew, thank you.

Matthew Chance at Ben Gurion, the airport there just east of Tel Aviv.

Matthew, thanks for that report.

Also, the pilot is saying at first he thought perhaps a large bird had collided with perhaps one of the jet engines. But clearly that is not the case now, as we know it.

Back to Kenya. This is the scene, by way of videotape, shortly after the suicide bombing was carried out. This is what we understand right now, according to our reporter, Catherine Bond, on the ground there and at the scene.

At least three suicide bombers, two of whom were inside a truck that rammed the front entrance of that hotel, apparently this vehicle loaded with explosives. At the same time, a third suicide bomber on foot was inside the hotel lobby. Whether he got out of that truck earlier, we don't know. But he also blew himself up inside.

The end result, according to our reporter on the scene, at least 13 dead right now. Other reports say it's less than that, but oftentimes these numbers do change.

The important point is this, though, at least 80 others are injured. This was a target against Israelis, as a group of Israeli tourists were checking into that resort hotel. In addition, there are at least eight Kenyans who paid for this attack with their lives, as well, hotel employees who had simply come out of the hotel lobby to greet the arriving tourists with a traditional Kenyan dance. They have lost their lives, as well.

Back to Mombasa by way of video phone, here's Catherine Bond with more now -- Catherine, what do you have this hour?

CATHERINE BOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We understand that the attackers arrived in a green Pajera (ph) vehicle at about 8:30 local time this morning. There were three occupants in the vehicle. They were refused entry by hotel security. They revised the vehicle and broke the gate down. They drove round to the front of the hotel. One of them got out, walked into the lobby where he exploded himself. The other two apparently exploded inside the vehicle.

You can see a crater where the vehicle appears to have been. It's strewn twisted metal right across the car park, and as you can see, these two vehicles are completely damaged behind me.

The hotel's thatched roof appeared to catch fire and so it's completely burned. It's disappeared completely and there's still plumes of smoldering smoke coming from the top of it.

We understand that at least nine people were killed, maybe as many as 13, and about 35 more have been admitted to hospital in Mombasa with serious injuries.

HEMMER: Catherine, there is another intriguing report coming to us here at CNN. The hotel owner -- I'm not sure what you can add on this -- the hotel owner describes a light plane flying overhead right about the same time, dropping at least three bombs in the direction of the hotel and the beach nearby.

Can you add more to that?

BOND: Yes, he told us that this morning. He said there was a light aircraft that was seen by guests and members of the hotel staff and that it dropped three bombs on the hotel, two on the beach. We haven't had any confirmation of that. It's a rather mysterious report, as you say. Now, one of the bombs is supposed to have landed on the hotel roof. But what we do know is that a vehicle came in here and that that caused a massive explosion and a huge fire as a result. We can't confirm the reports of a light aircraft.

HEMMER: All right, Catherine, thanks.

Catherine Bond on the scene there by way of video phone in Mombasa.

We'll be back with Catherine in a moment.

We want to talk more about the bigger picture right now, about what may have truly unfolded here in Eastern Africa. We want to stress, no claims of responsibility yet for these attacks. Kenya's ambassador to Israel saying he has no doubt, though, in his words, no doubt that al Qaeda is behind the violence. Again, nothing to prove this just yet.

But our terrorism expert, Eric Margolis, who has been with us many times in the past, is back now this morning live in Toronto.

Eric, good morning to you.


HEMMER: Is it fair at this point to lay it on al Qaeda, knowing that it is so early right now and there has been virtually no claim of proof right now?

MARGOLIS: You know, it could be some other groups, for example, Islamic jihad or Hamas from Palestine. But the hallmark of this attack certainly seems to be al Qaeda. There are a number of Qadea cells in Kenya. They've been very active in East Africa. Remember the 1998 bombings.

HEMMER: Right.

MARGOLIS: And this reflects a disturbing trend of attacks against tourists. We saw the terrible attack in Bali and another hallmark of, two other hallmarks of al Qaeda are that, number one, they stage elaborate, very high profile attacks. And secondly, they attack where they're not expected. Everyone was looking for an attack against tourist resorts in Thailand or other parts of South Asia and it hit Mombasa.

HEMMER: Listen, back up, Eric.

We all know August 1998 what happened in Tanzania and Kenya with the bombings of the U.S. embassies. About 250 people dead as a result of those attacks in the early part of August of that year. But what is it that leads you to believe that al Qaeda has been that active in this part of Africa, with the exception of the terrible events of three years ago?

MARGOLIS: They have a well, long established infrastructure down the East African coast, where there's a very large Muslim population which is hostile to the ruling governments, who tend to be Christian and supported by the United States. They have received funding through the area. The Americans have put troops into Djibouti on the Horn of Africa specifically to try and counter this threat.

So it's an area where there was very little control by Western powers. A lot of ability for al Qaeda to operate freely.

HEMMER: We're going to tread in some areas that we shouldn't go, only because oftentimes we're going to have to use the word if to describe this, and this is pure speculation. If, indeed, al Qaeda is responsible, oftentimes we associate their targets to be Americans, be it military or civilian, such as the events of 9/11. But if, indeed, al Qaeda has now turned the tables on the Israelis and their tourists overseas, what would that tell you?

MARGOLIS: It would tell me that the tourists are increasingly becoming a target. It's very interesting, to my knowledge Israelis have not been the target of al Qaeda before, if this was al Qaeda. It also suggests that Israelis who go to other areas -- and I'm thinking particularly of Turkey, where there's a large Israeli presence -- may be in considerable danger. And as I've said before on this program, that American tourists are going to be increasingly in risk.

They're a soft target. They're easy to get at. As we tighten security, they become a number one target.

HEMMER: Eric, what about this, what do you know or what do terrorism experts around the world know right now about how different groups have tried to procure these shoulder fired missiles that may be directed at civilian aircraft?

MARGOLIS: Al Qaeda's, and other militant groups, have been offering between $500,000 and a million dollars for models of shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, particularly the lighter ones. Fortunately for the Israelis, the ones that were fired, if they were, in fact, were probably SAM, old SAM 7s. As I said on this program some weeks ago, relatively ineffective against civilian airliners, except in their immediate takeoff phase.

But if the groups get the advance for an Igla (ph) missile, SAM 18s, they could very well bring down a civilian airliner with huge casualties.

HEMMER: Is that not the worst case scenario to think about right now?

MARGOLIS: I worry about that. I worry about attacks on cruise ships or against hotels, that are another very soft target, in Europe. This is...

HEMMER: But, Eric, I have to think, though, if this attack is ever carried out and you have a gentleman sitting or a terrorist sitting at the end of a runway with a shoulder fired missile directed at civilian aircraft, that could essentially freeze for some time aircraft travel in this country, and, for that matter, around the world, until people are reassured that there is no one out there waiting for that plane to take off.

MARGOLIS: Bill, you're absolutely right. And this attack in Kenya will hurt the air travel business, it'll hurt the tourist business and it will probably devastate Kenya's already shaky economy.

HEMMER: Is there anything right now that leads you to believe that Kenyan authorities have the ability to crack down?

MARGOLIS: Well, they probably have tried but they're not the most efficient anti-terrorist group. Their security is kind of lax. And Kenya is in a very confused internal state with a lot of tribal dissent in the area and political infighting, secession struggles. So they could have been much more effective.

HEMMER: And, Eric, one more question here before I let you go. Oftentimes in the past we have seen some sign or signal that we look back in hindsight and say you know what? There was a message contained in that piece of videotape or that interview or that piece of audiotape that could lead to the evidence that certain aspects of this war we're targeting.

Is there anything out there right now in the past couple of weeks that may have led you to think that this would happen in Africa now?

MARGOLIS: Not specifically in Africa, though there was a letter just recently by Osama bin Laden in which he again warned that all Americans, because of their support for Israel and their presence in Saudi Arabia and their punishment of Iraq, were legitimate targets in this struggle.

HEMMER: Eric Margolis live in Toronto.

Thanks for coming in today on Thanksgiving.

MARGOLIS: You're welcome.

HEMMER: All right.


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