Gunmen Open Fire on Tourists Outside 3,400-Year-Old Temple in Egypt, Killing At Least 66
Gunmen Open Fire on Tourists Outside 3,400-Year-Old Temple in Egypt, Killing At Least 66 People in Deadliest Attack Ever on Tourists ThereBy MOHAMED EL-DAKHAKHNY
LUXOR, Egypt (AP) _ Gunmen opened fire on tourists outside a 3,400-year-old temple in southern Egypt today, and then battled police in a three-hour firefight. At least 66 people, including 57 foreigners, were killed in the deadliest attack on tourists in Egypt.
The assailants, whom the government and police say were Islamic militants, burst into the courtyard of the Hatshepsut Temple in a desert outside Luxor and fired a hail of bullets at dozens of tourists who had just gotten off a bus, police said.
Local police said that as the panic-stricken tourists ran or fell to the ground, police guarding the site returned fire. Six attackers and two policemen were killed, they said. Authorities later rounded up a large number of suspects.
The attackers tried to hijack the bus to flee, but were fired on by police. Among the dead, witnesses and police sources said, were three elderly French tourists who stayed on the bus rather than go into the temple.
The Interior Ministry, however, said one assailant was killed on the scene and five fled in the bus. Those five were chased by police into nearby hills, and were killed, a statement said. The assailants were carrying six machine guns, two handguns and hand-made explosives, it said.
The government put the overall death toll at 66, including the six assailants. Of those, 57 were foreigners. The statement gave no breakdown but said Swiss, German and Japanese were among them.
Twenty-four people were wounded, including 12 Swiss, two Germans, one French, one Japanese and eight Egyptians. Eight of the wounded were in serious condition at a Cairo hospital. Four others were treated and released, the Interior Ministry statement said.
The Information Ministry, however, put the number of dead at 70, including 60 foreigners. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy, but the Interior Ministry is in charge of the police and is the agency that oversees the government response to such attacks.
State-run Cairo TV referred to the attackers as ``terrorist elements,″ a phrase usually reserved for Islamic militants seeking to oust President Hosni Mubarak’s secular government and replace it with strict Muslim rule. To that end, the militants have targeted the country’s lucrative tourism industry, launching deadly attacks, mainly in southern Egypt. Some 1,100 people have been killed since the insurgency began in 1992.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for today’s violence.
Militants who have staged previous attacks have sought the imposition of Islamic law, including a ban on alcohol, the veiling of women and a tax on religious minorities. The militants consider it their religious duty to fight a government that does not impose such law, called Sharia.
The violence today began just as the tour group was about to enter the three-story sandstone temple, built on an elevated area approached by a wide flight of steps, said Mohammed Nasser, an archaeologist in Luxor, quoting witnesses.
The tourists panicked and tried to hide behind pillars, he said. After police arrived, the attackers tried to commandeer the bus, which police then sprayed with gunfire.
Local police said some assailants may have escaped and could be hiding at a graveyard near the temple, 315 miles south of Cairo. But the Interior Ministry claimed all the attackers had been killed.
Egypt’s Middle East News Agency said Interior Minister Hassan el-Alfy and Health Minister Ismail Sallam had rushed to Luxor, which is famed for its gigantic pharaonic-era temples on the east bank of the Nile.
A curfew was imposed in Luxor, but dozens of people went into the streets to protest the attack and its possible negative effects on tourism, the city’s lifeblood.
Until now, the city has been relatively free of militant violence, which has been centered in the towns of Minya or Assiut, further north, with policemen and Coptic Christians frequently targeted.
The west bank _ where today’s violence took place _ has hundreds of tombs of kings, queens and noblemen, including that of the boy-king Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari.
In 1994, the Hatshepsut Temple, named after an ancient Egyptian queen, was the site of a performance of the opera ``Aida.″ At the time, the government had hoped the extravagant staging of Guiseppe Verdi’s pharaonic love story would help tourism recover from a Muslim militant terror campaign.
But while five-star hotels were booked for the weekend, some had more security men than paying guests, and ticket sales were so sluggish that the planned six-night run was cut to three.
The militant violence had continued unabated. Most recently, on Sept. 18, nine Germans and their Egyptian driver were killed when gunmen opened fire on a bus in front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Two brothers were convicted in the assault and were sentenced to death last month. They claimed they were defending Islam but authorities insisted they were not part of any organized group.
Prior to today’s attack, the deadliest assault on foreigners in Egypt took place on April 18, 1996, when men with automatic rifles killed 18 Greek tourists and wounded 16 other people outside the Europa Hotel near the pyramids in Cairo.