CAIRO -A bomb exploded yesterday in a bazaar near the historic Hussein mosque in Cairo, killing a French woman, wounding 18 others and raising fears that Islamic militants might be targeting Egypt's tourism industry after several years of relative quiet.
The blast was small, but it reverberated through the tight alleys of the centuries-old Khan El-Khalili bazaar and sent shopkeepers, coffee shop waiters, worshipers and tourists scrambling for cover.
Egyptian state-owned TV reported that a French tourist was killed and the other victims, mostly foreigners, were injured when two masked women tossed a bomb from the roof of a motel just after dusk.
But there was confusion, panic and conflicting reports. Some news media quoted police and security forces as saying four people had been killed by a bomb that was either thrown from a motorcycle or hidden under a bench in the square. Other reports said a second explosive device was discovered by police and safely detonated.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry did not immediately release an official statement.
The blast ripped through the square as worshipers were filing into the mosque and at least two tour buses were parked outside. No one claimed immediate responsibility for the blast, and it was not clear whether tourists were targeted.
"I was praying in the Hussein mosque, and I heard an explosion, and we went out, and I saw two injured children and a tourist with his legs cut off," said a man who was escorted away by policeman before he could give his name to journalists.
Islamic extremists have criticized the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in recent weeks for not providing aid and assistance to Palestinians during the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip. Egypt's decision to keep its border with Gaza largely closed during the 22 days of fighting intensified the divide in the Arab world between the region's hard-line political leaders and U.S. allies, such as Egypt, that oppose control of the Palestinian enclave by the militant group Hamas.
Hamas has close ideological ties to Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which the Mubarak government claims is intent on creating an Islamic state in this nation of 83 million people. The brotherhood, which has renounced violence inside Egypt, controls 20 percent of Parliament, but hundreds of its members have been arrested in recent years.
"This bombing belongs to the phenomenon of discontinuous and random terror that occurs on a limited scale," said Mohamed Abdel Salam, an Egyptian security expert. "It is usually perpetrated by a group of individuals who do not belong to any organization, use primitive tools and hit only available targets."
He added: "Definitely, this bombing has to do with the war on Gaza and the animosity aroused against Egypt in the region."
Egypt has been shaken by terrorist plots and bombings during the past decade, including a 1997 militant attack that killed 63 people, many of them tourists in Luxor. That attack temporarily crippled the country's tourism industry and was followed by two other well-orchestrated assaults, including the 2005 bombings in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that killed more than 60 people. That same year, a bomb near the Hussein mosque in Cairo killed three people, including two Frenchmen and an American.
About 13 million people visited Egypt in 2008, bringing in more than $10.5 billion.
Yesterday, the square outside the mosque, a 12th-century shrine dedicated to the Prophet Mahammad's grandson, was littered with shattered glass, toppled chairs, marble fragments and police tape.
"I was praying, and I came out and saw a man and a woman lying on the ground," Mahmoud Abdullah Salam said.
"The ambulance came and took them away. Just five minutes earlier it was calm and normal, and then it all went upside down."