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Tourists flock to Egyptian Museum despite attack

September 19, 1997

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Hundreds of tourists poured into the Egyptian Museum on Friday, undeterred by a fire bomb attack that killed nine Germans and their driver and raised doubts about the success of the government’s crackdown against Islamic rebels.

The government moved quickly after Thursday’s assault to reaffirm that Egypt was safe for tourism, saying the attack on a tourist bus in the museum’s parking lot was a ``random criminal act.″ Twenty-four people were wounded in addition to the deaths.

Despite Egyptian assurances that the two assailants responsible for the attack had been arrested, Germany announced Friday that it intends to send high-ranking police officials and terrorism experts to Cairo to help in the investigation.

The charred skeleton of the bus was towed away overnight and the parking lot cleared of debris and hosed down. A day later, the only sign that anything unusual had happened was the presence of armed security guards patrolling the museum corridors and plainclothes security guards at its gates.

``I would have been horribly disappointed had we not been able to come here,″ said Lois Lee of Springfield, Mo. ``How could you come to Egypt and ... not see the King Tut exhibit?″

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

It could take months for the repercussions of the attack to become evident as tourists who have not paid for their trips decide whether to visit Egypt.

Tourism fell sharply after Muslim extremists launched their campaign to overthrow the secular government in 1992, attacking trains and Nile River cruise boats. But it has surged recently _ almost 450,000 foreigners visited in August, the highest figure ever for a single month. A record four million tourists came to Egypt last year.

``We hope that this will not affect the tourism renaissance,″ the governor of Cairo, Abdul Rahim Shehata, said at the museum. But he admitted Egypt expected ``some effect, which is natural.″

Tourism Minister Mamdouh Beltagi sent a message to tourist agencies abroad, assuring them that Egypt was safe. His ministry also issued a statement Friday calling the assault a ``random criminal act,″ despite earlier police claims that the assailants were ``terrorists″ _ a standard term for Muslim extremists.

Editors at both pro-government and opposition newspapers disagreed with the government’s latest version of the assault.

Al-Wafd, an opposition newspaper, said the attackers must have had ``organized help,″ and Samir Ragab, editor of the government-owned Egyptian Gazette, wrote: ``Our security officials have to stop parroting their routine boasting: `Terrorism is vanquished! We have annihilated its remainder!″

The attack by three men armed with fire bombs and rifles was the first major assault in Cairo in 17 months. It raised doubts about government claims that the insurgency, which has claimed more than 1,100 lives in five years, had been confined to the rural south.

In addition to discrepancies about the motives of the attackers, there were also differing accounts about how many were involved. Witnesses described three attackers, but the Interior Ministry said Friday there were only two assailants.

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

A police statement 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.

In Bonn, Germany, the No. 2 official in the Foreign Ministry, Hans-Friedrich von Ploetz, told Egypt’s ambassador to Germany in a meeting Friday night that Germany expects the Egyptian government to do all it can to punish the perpetrators of the attack and their possible backers.

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