CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ An Egyptian appeals court on Sunday upheld a regulation preventing government-certified doctors and health workers from performing female circumcisions.

The decision ends a long battle between Islamic fundamentalists who support circumcision _ known by opponents as genital mutilation _ and human rights and women's groups.

The Supreme Administrative Court said it upheld the ban because Islam does not demand the operation, thus making its performance subject to Egyptian law.

The ruling cannot be appealed.

``With this ruling it has become prohibited for all to perform the operation of female circumcision, even with the consent of the girl or her guardians,'' the court said.

An exception could be made if a gynecologist approved the surgery for health reasons, it said.

``Violators will be subjected to criminal, disciplinary and administrative punishment,'' the court added.

Doctors and health workers who perform such surgery now face revocation of their licenses and three years in prison. Hospitals risk closure.

The practice of female circumcision by unlicensed practitioners, such as barbers and midwives, already is banned.

Health Minister Ismail Sallam announced the ban on licensed medical practitioners in July 1996 following a campaign by human rights and women's groups, who charge that the procedure is dangerous.

The procedure, typically performed on girls before puberty, ranges from cutting the tip of the clitoris to the removal of all external genitals.

Many in Egypt and other parts of Africa follow the tradition on the grounds that it promotes cleanliness and curbs a girl's sexual appetite. Others insist it is required by Islam, although many Muslim scholars dispute this. Some Egyptian Christians follow the practice, too.

Sallam's ban initially was overturned by a lower court after eight Muslim scholars and doctors charged it exceeded the government's authority and violated medical professions' legal rights.

But the Supreme Administrative Court said that Sallam had the power to ban the procedure because ``female circumcision is not a personal right according to the rules of Islamic Sharia (law).'' Thus, the court said, the operation falls under Egyptian laws.

Sheik Youssef al-Badry, a Muslim fundamentalist who spearheaded the case, told reporters after the ruling that the court had wronged Islam.

``The judge is a man, and a man can do right or make mistakes,'' al-Badry said. ``We shall meet in the day of judgment in front of the big judge, in front of Allah. I want to see what he says to Allah.''

An estimated 70 percent to 90 percent of Egyptian women are believed to be circumcised.

The controversial procedure drew international attention in 1994, when the American Cable News Network carried film of the circumcision of a 10-year-old girl by an unskilled practitioner.

An Egyptian court last August rejected a dlrs 500 million lawsuit against CNN that claimed the network had damaged Egypt's reputation by airing the footage.