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Bomb likely cause of New Year's Eve blast

By CHARLES P. WALLACE

NAIROBI, Kenya -- A terrorist bomb probably caused the explosion in a Jewish-owned hotel that killed at least 16 New Year's Eve revelers and injured 85, including eight Americans, officials said Thursday.

Most of the dead were foreign tourists and the casualty toll was considered likely to rise. The U.S. Embassy said nine Americans were still unaccounted for and possibly trapped beneath the rubble of the main section of the stately Norfolk Hotel.

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Kenya's police commissioner denied eyewitness reports that the hotel, the most famous in black Africa, was bombed by an airplane. But other officials said the blast appeared to have been caused by a bomb planted inside.

The explosion brought down the roof of the hotel's crowded dining room just as the guests, most of them tourists, were sitting down to their New Year's Eve celebrations.

The names of the dead and injured were not immediately released. Among the eight Americans hospitzalized with injuries were two foreign service officers identified as a staffer from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and the secretary of the U.S. ambassador to Uganda.

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A favorite haunt of the rich and famous since the turn of the century, the Norfolk is owned by the Blocks, one of the most prominent Jewish families in Africa. Police speculated the hotel could have been the target of a terrorist attack because of the family's close ties to Israel.

'People started running in every direction. There was a man with an eye dangling from his head,' said Susan Stone of Chicago, Ill., who with her husband Roger came to Kenya to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary.

Another American caught in the blast, Ailene Isaf of Atlanta, Ga., said she heard a tremendous explosion and then saw 'glass, bricks and debris flying everywhere. My husband pulled me under the table.'

The bar and the main section of the hotel were completely destroyed and the force of the blast also shattered the windows of cars outside and scattered debris across the street, site of the government-owned Voice of Kenya broadcasting station.

'It was terrifying,' said Betty Williams of Los Angeles, Calif. 'We thought the blast was in the radio station and then there were screams all over the place. We just managed to get out fast.'

Witnesses said a plane passed overhead just before the blast and appeared to drop a projectile that could have been a bomb onto roof of the hotel, which was completely torn off.

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Police commissioner Ben Gethir said the cause had not been determined but denied the hotel had been bombed from the air.

'I refute this report in the strongest terms and wish to inform all people that there is not the slightest truth in this,' Gethi said.

However, officials said a bomb was still the probable cause. The hotel chef said there was no fire in the kitchen and that the gas cylinders used for cooking were all found intact after the blast.

The day before, workmen had made a number of electrical installations in the main dining room for the New Year's Eve celebrations and there was speculation that a bomb could have been planted then.

There was no immediate comment from the Block family, which has owned Tudor-style the hotel since the 1920s.

Throughout the years the Norfolk has hosted a veritable Who's Who of famous guests. Teddy Roosevelt set out on safaris from the Norfolk and Ernest Hemmingway was a frequent patron at the bar.

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