By Suleiman al-Khalidi and Dina Wakeel
AMMAN (Reuters) – Iraq’s al Qaeda group claimed responsibility on Thursday for suspected suicide bombings on luxury hotels in U.S. ally Jordan that killed 57 people and wounded 110.
In Wednesday night’s synchronized attacks, two bombs exploded while crowds were celebrating weddings, leaving blood and destruction at Amman’s luxury Grand Hyatt hotel and the nearby Radisson SAS. A third blast targeted a Days Inn hotel.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said in a statement on an Islamist website that “a group of our best lions” had launched the attacks in Jordan.
“Some hotels were chosen which the Jordanian despot had turned into a backyard for the enemies of the faith, the Jews and crusaders,” said the message signed by the group’s spokesman. Its authenticity could not be verified.
Police said they thought the blasts were the work of suicide bombers. Simultaneous attacks are an al Qaeda hallmark and U.S. officials said they suspected the network was to blame.
Jordan’s King Abdullah blamed a “deviant and misled group” for the blasts. “The attacks targeted and killed innocent Jordanian civilians,” the king, whose country is bordered by Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel, said in a statement.
Al Qaeda in Iraq’s statement said:”Let the tyrant of Amman know that his protection…for the Jews has become a target for the mujahideen and their attacks, and let him expect the worst.”
Jordan is one of two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel. It helped the United States in the war on Iraq, where Zarqawi’s group is part of an anti-U.S. insurgency.
Jordan had so far been spared major attacks on foreigners despite its proximity to Iraq and popularity as a tourist destination, but the authorities had been braced for trouble.
“The initial investigations so far show that the blasts that caused the deaths of 57 people and wounded 110 people had been executed by explosive devices and suicide bombings,” said a statement issued by the Jordanian cabinet.
Interior Minister Awni Yarfas told Reuters the bombs at the hotels, all run by U.S. chains, were timed to detonate almost simultaneously.
Jordan closed its borders to try to stop suspects fleeing and a security official said scores of people had been arrested.
Deputy Prime Minister Marwan al-Muasher said most of the victims were Jordanians, but China said three Chinese were among those killed. A Palestinian diplomat said a senior Palestinian officer and two other officials were among the dead.
Schools, businesses and government offices closed as the stunned kingdom prepared to bury the dead. Police and troops threw up roadblocks around hotels and embassies in Amman.
“I was eating with friends in the restaurant next to the bar when I saw a huge ball of fire shoot up to the ceiling and then everything went black,” said a French U.N. official, who was at the Hyatt. “It caused absolute devastation.”
U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were among world leaders who condemned the attacks. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan canceled plans to visit Amman on Thursday.
The explosion at the Radisson tore through a banqueting room where about 250 people were at a wedding reception, witnesses said. A smaller wedding, attended by several dozen well-dressed young people, was going on at the Hyatt.
Reuters correspondents at those two hotels saw dozens of wounded people, including one young woman hit by shrapnel in her legs and back and apparently left paralyzed.
At the Hyatt, one waiter, identified by his name tag as Mustafa, lay motionless on the hotel’s back steps as guests tried to resuscitate him before ambulance workers arrived.
Many Westerners, including tourists, businessmen and foreign contractors working in Iraq, were staying at the three hotels. The Radisson is known to be popular with Israeli tourists.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari who arrived in Amman for an unannounced visit told reporters he would “point the fingers of accusation against al Qaeda.”
In Washington, U.S. officials said even before the Internet claim from al Qaeda in Iraq that the details of the bombings provided by Jordanian authorities pointed toward the group.
“It’s likely that the Zarqawi network was responsible for the attacks,” said one counter-terrorism official.
In another attack in Jordan claimed by al Qaeda, militants fired Katyusha rockets at two U.S. warships in the Red Sea port of Aqaba in August. They narrowly missed their targets, hitting civilian buildings and the nearby Israeli port of Eilat.
Zarqawi, who comes from the poor town of Zarqa north of Amman, was jailed by Jordan in 1996 but freed under amnesty by King Abdullah when he assumed the throne three years later.