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Investigators eye Bedouin link to Sinai blasts

Tribesman admits selling explosives, Egyptian security says

TABA, Egypt -- A Bedouin tribesman has confessed to selling explosives that might have been used in three deadly car bombings targeting Israeli tourists, and investigators were looking into possible Palestinian militant involvement, Egyptian security officials said yesterday.

The tribesman said the buyers, whom he could not identify, told him the explosives would be used in the Palestinian territories, an Egyptian investigator said.

"The explosives were sold on the assumption that they were going to the Palestinians," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The Egyptians reportedly have asked Israel to provide information about specific Palestinians who recently entered their country.

Three car bombs, each packed with 440 pounds of explosives, went off Thursday night -- one at the Taba Hilton just south of the Egypt-Israel border and two at Ras Shitan, a Red Sea town of beach bungalows 35 miles to the south.

Major General Yair Naveh, head of the Israeli army home front command, said in addition to the Isuzu pickup that exploded at the Taba Hilton, a suicide bomber inside the hotel detonated another bomb.

"To our relief, the bomber who entered the hotel did not enter the hotel restaurants, something which would have brought down at least half the hotel," Naveh said.

Egypt has put the death toll at 34. Naveh said at least 32 bodies had been found, plus several body parts. The dead included Egyptians, Israelis, Italians, a Russian woman, and others from the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

Israeli rescue officials said 12 Israelis have been positively identified among the dead and a few Israelis were still unaccounted for.

Egyptian security officials said some of the dozens of Bedouins detained for questioning after the car bombings have been cooperating with authorities and have provided valuable information about explosives.

Israeli officials have complained in the past of weapons and explosives being smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Sinai, which borders the Palestinian territory.

The Israelis maintain they come through tunnels beneath the border.

Palestinian and Egyptian officials said Egyptian security and intelligence officers have been discussing the attacks with officials from the Palestinian factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Egyptians were seeking information about members of the groups upset about Egypt's plan to help secure the Gaza Strip if Israel withdraws. Egypt has come under fire from some Arabs for allegedly aiding Israel; Egypt maintains it needs to ensure stability along its border in the event of a security vacuum left by Israel's departure.

The officials said Egypt is not suggesting the two factions were behind the attacks, but are probing the possibility that disgruntled defectors from the groups might have been involved.

These discussions were taking place in Gaza and in some Middle East capitals, one official said without specifying which ones.

On Saturday, Egyptian investigators said they suspected that a group of eight to 10 terrorists carried out the attacks, possibly slipping in from Saudi Arabia or Jordan on speedboats.

Israel has blamed Al Qaeda for the attacks, and the United States has said it suspects the terrorist network played a role.

The Egyptian investigators also were leaning toward an Al Qaeda connection, saying a local sleeper cell may have carried out the attacks, the first major terrorist strike in Egypt in seven years.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, they said such a group would almost certainly be linked to Ayman al-Zawahri, who led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad before merging his group with Al Qaeda in 1998. The Egyptian-born Zawahri is now Osama bin Laden's top deputy.

Last night, one of three previously unknown groups that claimed responsibility for the bombings posted an Internet statement saying it was solely responsible and warning of more attacks against "the despotic government in Egypt" and against the Israeli embassies in Egypt and Jordan.

There was no way of verifying the claim by the Brigades of the Martyr Abdullah Azzam, which said it is affiliated with Al Qaeda.

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