Shaken tourists spoke of mass panic and hysteria as people fled the carnage in the early hours, with bodies strewn across the roads, people screaming and sirens wailing.

The regional governor said two car bombs and possibly a suitcase bomb had rocked the resort, popular with divers, European holidaymakers and statesmen who have attended world summits in the place Egypt has called "the city of peace".

Car bomb

One blast tore the front off the Ghazala Gardens Hotel in Naama Bay, the site of most of the resort's luxury hotels. A car broke into the hotel compound and exploded in front of the building, South Sinai Governor Mustafa Afifi said.

"There was a blast then a fireball... Everyone panicked," said Dutch tourist Rene von Denberg, who was sitting at a cafe smoking a water pipe when the bomb hit the hotel.

The bombings sparked panic in
the busy resort

"It felt like an earthquake. It was an almighty boom and the whole hotel was covered with dust," added Londoner Robert Hare.

An official source at Sharm al-Shaikh International Hospital said 88 were dead and about 200 injured. Egyptian authorities flew many critically injured people to Cairo.

Most of the victims were Egyptians, but the Tourism Ministry spokeswoman said seven non-Egyptians were dead, including a Czech and an Italian, and 20 injured.

President resolute

The injured foreigners were nine Italians, five Saudis, three Britons, a Russian, a Ukrainian and an Israeli Arab, spokeswoman Hala el-Khatib told reporters. But the British Foreign Office in London said eight Britons were injured.

Mubarak visited the resort and
condemned the attacks

In a short statement read on television, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said: "This will only make us more determined to pursue terrorism and dig it out by the roots... We will not give in to its blackmail, or seek a truce."

A group claiming links to the al-Qaida organisation said it carried out the bombings in retaliation for "crimes committed against Muslims", according to an internet statement.

The statement, which was not carried on major al-Qaida websites, was signed by the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades of the al-Qaida Organisation in the Levant and Egypt. It was not possible to authenticate the claim.

Police arrested 35 people in the Sharm al-Shaikh area, security sources said, but it was not clear if they were suspected of close links with the bombers.

Officials said the attacks might
be linked to the Taba bombing

Egyptian Interior Minister Habib el-Adli said it was too early to say whether al-Qaida or other Islamist groups had any connection with the bombings, but there was probably a link with attacks further north last October.

Egyptian authorities blamed those attacks, which killed 34 people mostly at the Taba Hilton on the Israeli border, on a Palestinian leading an unaffiliated group.

Last month, Israel stepped up warnings to its own citizens, saying the risk of another such attack had risen.

The attacks on Saturday were the worst in Egypt since Islamists stormed a security headquarters in the southern city of Assiut in 1981, killing 120 police.

'I have a bomb'

Ahmad Mustafa, a waiter at a coffee shop near the first of the explosions, said a massive fireball tore through the car park outside a shopping mall in Sharm al-Sheikh town. It was about 1.15am.

The explosion turned cars into skeletons of twisted metal, blew down masonry on nearby buildings and shattered windows for hundreds of metres around.

The bombs caused serious
damage across the town

Officials said a car had exploded there, but a witness said a man had walked into a crowd with a large travel bag and announced in Egyptian Arabic: "I have a bomb."

Some people moved away, but others thought he was joking, said the witness, who asked not to be named. Two minutes later an explosion took place where he had put the bag, she added.

"I saw a car flying up in the air, people running," restaurant owner Yahya Muhammad said by telephone. "I do not think I will ever forget this in my life. This is a horrible setback for tourism here."

Hurghada visit 

Sharm residents said they heard two more explosions coming from Naama Bay in quick succession, blasts that could be felt 10km away. Witnesses said the first of these hit the hotel and the second a taxi rank.

Tourist Fabio Basone said: "People were trying to run in any direction to get away, but were not clear where to go."

Mubarak cut short a holiday on the Mediterranean coast and flew to Sharm al-Shaikh, officials said.

He then flew to the rival resort of Hurghada, on the African shore of the Red Sea, to reassure tourists during a walk-about and to make sure that security was tight.

The attacks had an immediate impact on tourism as European travellers cancelled trips to the popular destination.

Some in Sharm al-Shaikh left early for home. But
others vowed to go ahead with their holidays, saying they could not avoid bombs wherever they were.