A bomb attack killed at least 14 people, most of them foreigners, in the bustling historic town of Marrakesh, one of the busiest tourist destinations in Morocco.

The bomb ripped through a café overlooking Jamaa El Fnaa, the iconic square usually packed with foreign tourists, local food sellers, snake charmers, storytellers and other performers.

The interior ministry said the blast, first ascribed to a gas leak, was caused by an explosive device.

“Analysis of the early evidence collected at the site of the blast that occurred on Thursday at a cafe in Marrakesh confirms the theory of an attack,” the ministry said in a statement carried by the official MAP news agency.

King Mohammed, Morocco’s ruler, ordered a speedy and transparent investigation into what he described as a “criminal explosion”, the agency reported.

Moroccan officials have not blamed any group for the bombing, but suspicions are likely to turn to Islamic militants possibly linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – an organisation which operates across North Africa and the countries of the Sahel.

Last week, men claiming to be Moroccan members of al Qaeda’s north African wing appeared in a video posted on YouTube threatening to attack Moroccan interests.

A masked speaker, who identified himself as Abu Abdulrahman, said the planned attacks were to avenge the detention of Islamists by Moroccan authorities.

The security services regularly announce the arrest of militant cells, but most detentions have occurred before groups have carried out any attacks.

The Marrakesh bombing is the largest since 2003 when Islamic militants carried out a series of simultaneous attacks in Casablanca, the commercial centre, killing 45 people and injuring more than a 100. A hotel, a restaurant and a Jewish synagogue were among the targtes. In 2007 bombs exploded outside the US consulate general and an American language school also in Casablanca.

Two residents in Marrakesh who were near the square told Reuters news agency that the explosion was carried out by a suicide bomber, but there was no immediate confirmation of this.

“I heard a massive blast. The first and second floors of the building were destroyed,” said one local woman, who did not want to be identified. “Some witnesses said they have seen a man carrying a bag entering the cafe before the blast occurred.”

The attack will almost certainly deal a blow to Morocco tourist trade – a main source of foreign revenue and a pillar of the economy which has barely recovered from the impact of the downturn in Europe.

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