Marrakesh 'terrorist' blast kills 14

MARRAKESH, Morocco (AFP) – A bomb attack at a crowded tourist cafe in the main square of the Moroccan city of Marrakesh killed 14 people, mostly foreigners, as world leaders denounced the "terrorist" act.

King Mohammed IV ordered an urgent probe after Thursday's attack, the deadliest in Morocco since 2003, when 45 people including suicide bombers perished in a string of coordinated bombings in Casablanca.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon condemned the "heinous" bomb attack with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling it a "cowardly" act.

A local official said the explosion at the cafe on the popular Jamaa el-Fna square, a cultural heritage site that draws a million tourists a year, may have been the work of a suicide bomber.

Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui put the death toll at 14 -- 11 foreigners and three Moroccans. Twenty-three people were wounded, he told journalists.

Medical sources said eight of the dead were French.

A Dutch man died and two others -- a man and a woman -- were seriously wounded in the attack, Dutch foreign ministry official Christophe Kamp told AFP.

An official at the Marrakesh prefecture said the midday blast "could have been the work of a suicide bomber", adding: "We found nails in one of the bodies."

But Cherkaoui would not confirm the theory. "I cannot say it was a suicide bomber," he said.

"I can assure you that we continue to fight terrorism with all legal means. The criminals implicated in this act will be brought to justice," he added.

Rabat and Paris condemned what they said was a "terrorist" attack on the cafe, a favourite haunt of foreign visitors to the city about 350 kilometres (220 miles) south of the capital Rabat.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who spoke to the Moroccan king on the telephone, termed it a "heinous, cruel and cowardly" attack, said his Elysee office, which confirmed there were French casualties.

The explosion happened "on the terrace" of the popular Argana cafe, Latifa Idrissi, the wife of 28-year-old waiter Yassine Bouzidi, who was killed in the blast, told AFP.

One client recalled: "An individual came into the cafe. He ordered a glass of orange juice, and several minutes later, he blew himself up."

The facade of the cafe and the first floor were severely damaged, and tables and chairs strewn around the terrace.

A student who was inside the cafe recalled hearing three loud explosions and seeing victims flee.

"A woman was blown into the air and I saw a man completely disfigured," the student told AFP by telephone. "Then I saw a girl 14 or 15 years of age, she was also disfigured. The three were foreigners," he said.

Morocco's Communications Minister Khalid Naciri told AFP this was "a terrorist act".

"Morocco is confronted by the same threats as in May 2003," he said, adding the country would react "with diligence".

Morocco, a country of 32 million people whose economy relies heavily on tourism, has largely been spared the pro-change revolts that have swept the Arab world since the end of last year.

But there have been three protests since February to demand reform, prompting King Mohammed to announce major political changes, including greater judicial independence.

In mid-April, he pardoned political prisoners, including Islamists, in a gesture of appeasement.

An extreme Islamist group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is active in countries in the region.

Security forces have been deployed in the wake of the blast. A senior police official said cordons had been erected at the entrances to Morocco's main cities, "to ensure the internal security of the country".

French intelligence and anti-terrorism experts will travel to Marrakesh on Friday to help in the probe, a source said.

UN chief Ban said he was "appalled" by the attack, which the 15-nation Security Council denounced in "the strongest terms".

British Foreign Secretary William Hague described it as "utterly reprehensible."

"It was a cynical and abominable act and we condemn it," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

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