A massive terrorist bombing tore through a tourist cafe in the bustling heart of Marrakech's old quarter, killing at least 11 foreigners and three Moroccans in the country's deadliest attack in eight years.
At least 23 people were wounded in the Thursday blast a few minutes before noon in Djemma el-Fna square, one of the top attractions in a country that depends heavily on tourism, Moroccan Interior Minister Taib Chergaoui said.
Government spokesman Khalid Naciri told the Associated Press it was too soon to lay blame for what he called a terrorist attack, but he noted that Morocco regularly dismantles cells linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and says it has disrupted several plots.
At least eight French citizens were being treated at Marrakech's main Tofail Hospital, along with one Canadian, a British citizen and three Moroccans, emergency room chief Hicham Nejmi said. Others were being treated at a military hospital and a handful in private clinics.
April marks the start of Morocco's tourist season, when visitors gather to watch snake charmers, storytellers, jugglers and local musicians, filling the cafes that ring the edges of the iconic square on the route to the city's major open-air souk, or market.
"There was a huge bang, and lots of smoke went up. There was debris raining down from the sky," honeymooner Andy Birnie, who lives in north London, told the Associated Press by telephone. "Hundreds of people were running in panic."
The explosion blew much of the facade off the two-story terracotta-colored Argana cafe, leaving awnings dangling. Panicked passersby dragged away bodies and tried to put out flames with fire extinguishers, witnesses told the Associated Press.
"I believe the injured were mostly tourists, judging by what they were wearing," Alexandre Carvalho, 34, a call center worker from southern Portugal, told the AP by telephone.
At least two French nationals were among the casualties, although it was not immediately clear whether they were dead or wounded, judicial officials in the French capital said. President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed that the victims included French citizens.
This former French colony has enjoyed relative stability and political plurality compared with some of its neighbors, but King Mohamed VI holds the final say in all policy, and the country's largest Islamist movement is banned from politics. The king, however, has pledged constitutional reforms.
Moroccan authorities have rounded up thousands of purported terror suspects in recent years and while they "regularly discover terrorist cells nothing led us to foresee an act of this magnitude," Naciri said.