RABAT, Morocco — A massive explosion ripped through a cafe popular among foreign tourists in the Moroccan city of Marrakech on Thursday, killing 15 people and wounding 20 in what the government called a criminal act.
"Analysis of the early evidence collected at the site of the blast that occurred Thursday at a cafe in Marrakesh confirms the theory of an attack," the ministry said in a statement carried by the official MAP news agency.
The blast in the iconic Djemma el-Fna square was Morocco's deadliest bombing in eight years.
The explosion just before noon tore the facade off the two-story terracotta-colored Argana cafe, leaving awnings dangling. Panicked passersby dragged away bodies and tried to put out flames with fire extinguishers, witnesses told The Associated Press.
Quoting authorities, the state-run 2M television channel said the 15 dead comprised six French nationals, five Moroccans and four foreigners whose nationality it did not give.
Attacks and explosions in Morocco
Khalid Naciri said in an interview with France-24 television that more about the bombers' methods should be known within hours.
Morocco King Mohammed VI ordered a speedy investigation and expressed his condolences to families of the victims of the cafe attack, saying he will pay all funeral and burial expenses, NBC News reported.
"There was a huge bang, and lots of smoke went up, there was debris raining down from the sky. Hundreds of people were running in panic, some towards the cafe, some away from the square. The whole front of the cafe is blown away," witness Andy Birnie, of north London, told the AP by telephone. Birnie is honeymooning in Marrakech.
The roof over the cafe's upstairs terrace was ripped off by the force of the explosion and pieces of plaster and electrical wires hung from the ceiling.
The square is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its snake charmers, fire breathers and old town, or medina.
"It was lunchtime so the square was very busy. We had just walked into the square, but were shielded by some stalls," Birnie said.
"You can't find a more emblematic target than Jamaa el-Fnaa square," said a Frenchman who owns a restaurant in the city.
"With this attack and amid the worrying unrest in the region, tourism will hit the doldrums for some time," said the businessman, who did not want his name published.
Morocco is largely calm but was hit by terrorist bombings in Casablanca in 2003 that killed 45 people, including the suicide bombers. Moroccan authorities have regularly rounded up terror suspects since then and have been on alert for terrorist activity.
The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, or GICM, a militant group was believed linked to those attacks. The GICM has also been implicated in the deadly attacks in Madrid in March 2004.
King Mohammed has promised to reform the constitution to placate protesters who have been inspired by uprisings in other part of the Arab world. But a fresh round of protests is planned for Sunday.
Al-Qaida has an affiliate operating in North Africa that stages regular attacks and kidnappings in neighboring Algeria. Morocco has said in the past that it has dismantled several al-Qaida plots. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb currently holds four Frenchmen hostage after kidnapping them in Niger last year, and recently released new images and audio recordings of their voices.
Portuguese tourist Alexandre Carvalho, a 34 year-old call center worker from southern Portugal said, "I had just arrived at the square, the area where most cafes are located. Suddenly I heard this massive explosion, I had my back turned to it, I turned around to see it the explosion had happened on the veranda of a cafe.
"There were at least 10 injured people, lots of debris, things flying up in the air. I saw people in a panic running towards the area with fire extinguishers, some people being carried away. I believe the injured were mostly tourists, judging by what they were wearing," Carvalho told AP by telephone.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.