Image: Egyptian policemen secure the blast area
Khaled Desouki  /  AFP - Getty Images
Egyptian policemen secure the site of an explosion as their comrades cordon off the area in Cairo on Sunday.
updated 2/22/2009 4:44:05 PM ET 2009-02-22T21:44:05

An explosion ripped into a famed bazaar in medieval Cairo killing a French woman and wounding at least 21 people — most of them foreigners — the government said, in the first attack on tourists in Egypt in three years.

The blast hit the bustling main plaza at the Khan el-Khalili, a 650-year-old bazaar packed with tourists buying souvenirs, jewelry and handicrafts next to one of Cairo's most revered shrines, the Hussein mosque. Earlier, a security source told Reuters that four people had been killed in the attack, including two tourists.

The market is typically packed with visitors who arrive in massive buses as well as Egyptians visiting the mosque and nearby shops.

Within an hour of the attack police found a second explosive device and detonated it safely. Security officials say three people are in custody.

Homemade bomb involved
There were initial reports that a pair of grenades were thrown, but an official statement from the government said the attack involved a homemade bomb placed under a bench in the main plaza.

"We were serving our customers as usual, and all of a sudden there was a large sound," said Magdy Ragab, 42, a waiter at a nearby cafe. "We saw heavy gray smoke and there were people running everywhere... some people were injured by the stampede, not the shrapnel."

Blood stains marred the marble paving stones in front of the Hussein mosque where worshippers had been conducting evening prayers when the blast happened.

"I was praying and there was a big boom and people started panicking and rushing out of the mosque, then police came and sealed the main door, evacuating us out of the back," said Mohammed Abdel Azim, 56.

A medic at the scene said the French woman died in the intensive care unit of the nearby Hussein hospital.

The wounded included three Saudis, 13 French, a German and four Egyptians, including a young child, said the government statement on the attack.

The health minister announced that the injuries were comparatively minor and most would be be released from the hospital by Monday.

Tourism a major source of revenue
Afterwards, police investigators wearing plastic gloves combed through the area gathering fragments in evidence bags.

Tourism is one Egypt's major sources of foreign income and has been attacked in the past in an effort to harm the government.

Egypt fought a long war with Islamist militants in the 1990s, which culminated in a massacre of more than 50 tourists in Luxor in 1997. The rebels were largely defeated and there have been few attacks since in the Nile valley.

But from 2004 to 2006, there were a string of bombings against resorts in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 120 people, including in the Sinai's main resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

Cairo's Khan el-Khalili has been targeted before as well. In April 2006, a suicide bomber killed two French citizens and an American.

One of the highest religious officials in the country, Sheik of Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi condemned Sunday's attack calling it "cowardly and criminal."

"Those who carried out this criminal act are traitors to their religion and country and are distorting the image of Islam which rejects terrorism by prohibts the killing of innocents," he said.

Attack may be linked to Gaza attacks
Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer who has represented Islamic extremists in the past, told the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera that the attack may be linked to popular anger over the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip last month.

"The nature of the explosion looks like an act carried out by young, inexperienced amateurs whose emotions were inflamed by the events of Gaza," said el-Zayat, who once had links with extremists groups himself.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement expressing his condolences to the victim's family and stating his confidence that Egyptian authorities would "shed light on the circumstances of this tragedy."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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