Image: Police stand guard
Nasser Nouri  /  AP
Egyptian police stand guard next to a pool of blood on the ground outside the Al-Husseini mosque in the Khan el-Khalili market following a blast Sunday in Cairo.
updated 2/23/2009 12:10:40 PM ET 2009-02-23T17:10:40

A group of French teenagers on a school trip was hit hard by a bombing at a landmark Cairo bazaar, which killed a 17-year-old girl on the tour and wounded more than a dozen other students, the mayor of the teens' hometown said Monday.

Sunday night's explosion from a homemade bomb raised worries in Egypt of wider damage to the country's vital tourism industry, which is already suffering from the global economic meltdown.

The blast went off in the main square of the sprawling Khan el-Khalili market, which was packed with tourists and Egyptians — including more than 40 high school students from the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret.

Bomb placed under bench
A government spokesman said the bomb was placed under a stone bench in a cafe where the French students were sitting in the square, next to one of Cairo's most revered shrines, the Hussein mosque. The 17-year-old girl, who has not been identified, was killed and 24 people were wounded, including 17 French, said spokesman Magdy Radi, according to Egypt's state news agency MENA.

The students were nearing the end of their trip when the attack occurred, said Patrick Balkany, mayor of Levallois-Perret. He said some of the students have serious wounds, and other students suffered psychological shock from the "horror" of the experience.

"We are faced with a dreadful drama," Balkany told RTL radio on Monday.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, which was the first against tourists in Egypt in three years. Islamic extremists have in the past attacked tourists in an attempt to hurt Egypt's biggest source of income.

Khan el-Khalili — a 650-year-old bazaar of narrow, winding alleys — is one of the top tourist spots in Cairo, often crowded with foreigners shopping for souvenirs, hanging out in its cafes or visiting its numerous mosques and Islamic monuments. In April 2005, a suicide bomber in the market killed himself, two French citizens and an American.

A second bomb was found under another bench in the same cafe Sunday and was safely detonated, Radi said. Three people have been detained for questioning, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Some students returned home
Besides the French, the wounded included three Egyptians, three Saudis and a German, the government spokesman said. Three of the French teenagers remained in the intensive care unit Monday. One had a lung injury, another broken legs and the third suffered a ruptured ear drum.

Most of the French students returned home Monday, and 10 others who suffered light injuries were expected to follow later in the day or Tuesday, Balkany said.

Several experts on Islamic militancy in Egypt said the attack may have been carried out in anger over Egypt's response to Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip against Hamas in January and early February. During Israel's onslaught, Egypt came under heavy criticism around the Arab world for what some saw as its failure to help the Palestinians in Gaza.

The attack came days ahead of an international conference on rebuilding Gaza that Egypt is hosting March 2 in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to attend.

Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamic movements at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Sunday's attackers were likely small-scale militants provoked by Gaza rather than a large organization. "We are now facing a new type of terrorism, what I call an individual type of terrorism," he said.

Tourists hit by other attacks
Egypt fought a long war with Islamist militants in the 1990s, culminating in a massacre of more than 50 tourists in Luxor in 1997. The militants were largely defeated, and there have been few attacks since in the Nile valley. But from 2004 to 2006, a string of bombings in Sharm el-Sheik and other resorts in the Sinai Peninsula killed 120 people.

Several shopowners in Khan el-Khalili said they now worry that foreigners will avoid the bazaar. "I hope that this is phase is like an illness, and we'll recover," said Ahmed Magdy, who works in a shop selling scarves, bellydance outfits and trinkets.

Tourism has proven resilient after recent attacks, growing to bring in $10.8 billion in fiscal 2007-2008.

Sunday's bombing is likely to have little long-term impact — but more damaging is the world economic crisis, which is forcing many in Egypt's prime European markets to stay home rather than travel for vacation, tourism and economic experts said.

The global slowdown is expected to "bring down tourism arrivals by 15-20 percent in 2009," said Wael Ziada, head of Egypt research at Cairo-based investment bank EFG-Hermes, a sizable decline from the 12.8 million tourists that Egypt's tourism minister recently said arrived last year.

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

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