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Slaughter outside Egyptian Museum threatens tourism

September 19, 1997

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Hundreds of tourists streamed into the Egyptian Museum today to view the King Tut exhibit and other treasures, a day after a deadly attack that killed nine foreign tourists.

Thursday’s firebombing of a tourist bus outside the museum raised concerns that Egypt’s tourism industry, the country’s second-largest source of foreign currency, would suffer.

It also called into question government claims that it has largely isolated militant attacks to the rural south. Muslim militants are being blamed for the attack on the bus, which was parked at one of Cairo’s busiest squares at midday.

``Our security officials have to stop parroting their routine boasting: `Terrorism is vanquished! We have annihilated its remainder!‴ editor Samir Ragab wrote in the English-language Egyptian Gazette.

Galal Dwaidar, editor in chief of the Al-Akhbar newspaper, said in a front-page editorial today that the attack was ``a criminal act aimed, of course, at dealing a blow to the tourism movement and destroying the rising Egyptian economy.″

Despite the concerns, tourists crowded today into the courtyard of the Egyptian Museum’s reddish-brown, two-story building while security guards with assault rifles patrolled the area and plainclothes policemen and high-ranking security officers stood by the museum gates.

A museum ticket collector said that 1,800 tourists visited during the morning, normal for a Friday, the Muslim sabbath.

``I personally think it’s much more violent in the United States than here,″ said Lois Lee, a visitor from Springfield, Mo. ``I would have been horribly disappointed had we not been able to come here.

``How could you come to Egypt and ... not see the King Tut exhibit?″ she added.

Egyptian officials immediately sought to play down the impact of Thursday’s attack.

Tourism Minister Mamdouh Beltagi sent a message Thursday to tourist agencies in Egypt and abroad that Egypt was safe to visit and suggested the assailants were not members of an established militant group.

Early in the five-year campaign by Muslim militants to overthrow the secular government of President Hosni Mubarak, tourism fell sharply as attackers fired on trains and Nile River cruises. But it has recovered in the last few years.

Almost 450,000 foreigners visited Egypt in August, the highest figure ever for a single month. Four million tourists visited Egypt last year and officials had said they expected even more this year.

Tourism is Egypt’s second-largest source of foreign currency behind money sent from Egyptians working abroad, and provides income that is badly needed as the government pursues aggressive plans for economic privatization.

Interior Minister Hassan el-Alfy had boasted Wednesday in Assiut, a hotbed of Muslim extremism, that five years of political violence that had left more than 1,100 people dead was drawing to a close.

But on Thursday, the stench of gasoline and burned rubber filled the air outside the museum, home to one of the world’s greatest collections of golden Pharaonic treasures, mummies and papyruses.

Witnesses said three men in white shirts and ties walked up to a bus parked outside the museum as German tourists were climbing aboard, and hurled gasoline bombs and fired rifles.

Nine Germans and the Egyptian bus driver were killed. Twenty-four people were wounded.

After the attack, two bodies, one riddled with bullets, lay across the stairs of the bus. Others were sprawled across the inside aisle.

Police wounded and captured two of the gunmen. Police said the third suspect also was shot, but said his condition was not known, making clear he escaped. Another man was arrested nearby as a possible accomplice.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but police indicated that the gunmen were Muslim militants.

Police identified two of the suspects as Saber Farhat Abu el-Ulla, a failed pop singer, and his brother Mahmoud. A police statement said Saber Abu el-Ulla had been convicted of a 1993 attack on a Cairo hotel that left two Americans and a Frenchman dead.

It said he had been committed to a mental institution but escaped three days ago. However, police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had been released after spending two years in the institution.

The opposition daily Al-Wafd also questioned the government’s account of the attack, saying Saber Abu el-Ulla must have had ``organized help″ to accomplish the bombing. ``Who protected and sheltered him and who provided him with the big arsenal?″ it asked.

The attack comes amid a government crackdown against Muslim militants.

Three suspected Islamic militants fired at a police patrol car today in southern Egypt, killing one policeman and seriously wounding another, police said.

The assailants shot at the moving car in front of a courthouse in Dairut, 175 miles south of Cairo, then escaped into surrounding fields, said a police official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

Before Thursday, at least 29 foreigners had died in attacks. In the most recent one, militants opened fire on a group of Greek tourists near the pyramids in April 1996, killing 18.

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