Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak survived an assassination attempt Monday when gunmen ambushed his motorcade as he arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a summit of African leaders.
Although his car was pocked with gunshots, Mubarak, 67, was unhurt. He immediately returned home, where, at an airport news conference, he calmly recounted the machine-gun battle that raged around his bulletproof limousine.
“Suddenly I found a blue van blocking the road and somebody jumped to the ground. A machine gun started. . . . I realized there were bullets coming at our car,” he said. “I saw those who shot at me.”
Ethiopian officials said Monday night that seven to nine gunmen “of Arab origin” participated in the attack and that two were killed. Two police officers also died and another was wounded, they said. Mubarak said earlier that he believed five or six men were involved in the attack and that his bodyguards shot down three of them.
Suspicion immediately focused on Muslim extremists, who have plotted against Mubarak in the past and are engaged in a bloody rebellion in central Egypt aimed at replacing his government with a religious state. There were suggestions of possible involvement by Sudan, where the militant Islamist government has been accused by Egypt and the United States of exporting terrorism.
Police in Addis Ababa told reporters that they had seized Islamist literature, along with rocket-propelled grenades and other arms, from a gray stone house used by the would-be assassins for five days before the shooting.
Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency, citing unnamed Ethiopian sources, said the house had been rented by a Sudanese. The official Ethiopian News Agency quoted the landlady as saying the renter identified himself as a Yemeni named Sirak Mohammed.
One U.S. official in Washington said three men had been arrested in the incident and that two were Sudanese, but there was no confirmation of this from Ethiopia or Egypt.
At his news conference, Mubarak stopped just short of implicating Sudan in the shooting. Asked by a reporter if a “neighboring country” might be involved, Mubarak replied: “Do you want to say Sudan? [This] is very possible, very possible.”
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry denied any complicity and expressed “sorrow for what has happened.”
A caller claiming to speak for the militant Muslim Vanguards of Conquest called an international news agency in Cairo with praise for the gunmen. “The Vanguards of Conquest bless this action. If Mubarak escaped this time, he won’t escape next time. . . . The Vanguards of Conquest will knock the last nail into his coffin,” he said.
The caller hung up without answering questions.
Vanguards of Conquest is the military wing of the Jihad movement, which assassinated Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor, in a similar public attack in Cairo in 1981. Several members have been executed in Egypt’s ongoing struggle against Muslim radicals.
Monday’s attack appeared to be the result of considerable planning, with, by some accounts, gunmen firing from a rooftop as well as the street. Mubarak was on a one-day visit to Addis Ababa to address the opening session of the Organization of African Unity.
According to witnesses and official accounts in Addis Ababa, the assault took place near the Palestinian Embassy not far from the airport and began when two vehicles, including a blue, four-wheel-drive utility truck, dashed into the road and blocked the three-car motorcade. Men armed with what were described as AK-47 assault rifles sprang from the vehicles and loosed a fusillade of bullets. Mubarak’s presidential guard, grouped in one of the cars, and Ethiopian security forces returned fire. “There was blood all over the place,” one witness told Reuters news agency.
Several bullets glanced off Mubarak’s car, and he said one hit the windshield. “Some [gunmen] were raining bullets from the roof. Others were on the ground,” said Mubarak, who added that he was confident of his safety because of the armor plating on his Mercedes-Benz.
Mubarak’s car swerved back to the airport while another vehicle carrying Foreign Minister Amir Moussa also escaped.
No one in the Egyptian delegation was injured, Mubarak said. But Yusif Rajab--the Palestinian ambassador to Ethiopia, who coincidently was exiting the embassy when the firefight broke out--was hit in the leg by a stray bullet. Rajab was treated at a hospital and released.
After the shooting stopped, the bodies of the dead were quickly removed, leaving a litter of broken glass and ejected shells on the bloodstained, bullet-gouged pavement.
On his return to Cairo, Mubarak was met amid very heavy security by members of his government and his two sons, Alaa, 30, and Gamal, 28. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, was out of the country Monday.
Mubarak later fielded questions from reporters while standing in front of an oversize portrait of himself in the airport lounge.
“Whatever happens, Egypt will not be shaken and we will not give up fighting terrorism,” he said. “As you see, I look sound and safe and fine. I am a believer, and I have always thought that God is protecting me.”
He also used the news conference to return to a favorite theme--his assertion that radical Muslims fighting the government receive valuable support from outside Egypt. He noted that on Saturday, authorities seized a cache of weapons that had been smuggled into southern Egypt from Sudan, bound for the rebel groups.
More than 750 people have died in the three-year conflict, including Rifaat Mahgoub, Speaker of the Parliament, who was assassinated in 1990. Attempts also have been made on the lives of Prime Minister Atef Sedki and two Cabinet members. Islamists have been implicated in two known assassination plots against Mubarak.
A retired air force general, Mubarak was vice president when Sadat was murdered in 1981, and was appointed president by Parliament. He was last elected in 1993 and is serving a six-year term.
Mubarak has returned Egypt to a place of leadership in the Arab world after the estrangement caused by Sadat’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. At the same time, Egypt has continued to play a role in the Middle East peace process and is strongly allied with the United States.
“The United States stands by Egypt--our partner for prosperity in the Middle East and around the world--at this moment,” President Clinton said in a written statement from San Francisco, where he was attending the 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of the United Nations.
“The enemies of peace will not be allowed to thwart the peaceful hopes of the peoples of the region, and the efforts of President Mubarak and the peacemakers to make those hopes a reality,” he added.
In Israel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres expressed relief that Mubarak escaped unharmed.
“Thank heavens nothing happened to President Mubarak and he will be able to continue his important leadership,” Peres said. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin condemned “this base attack by Islamic extremists.”
Other good wishes poured in from the Middle East and Europe.
Comments on the street in Cairo focused on anger against suspected terrorist involvement in the assassination attempt.
“I think we should stand up to these terrorist groups with all our strength,” said shop owner Ahmed Meniawy in a typical comment.
For the most part, this sprawling capital seemed to take the events in stride.
In the hours after the attack, Egyptian television played and replayed Mubarak’s news conference, along with file film of his public appearances. Aside from the concentration of security forces at the airport, there was little evidence of extra police on the streets, even in the area of the presidential palace.
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The attack occurred as the Egyptian president’s car was passing the Palestinian Embassy in Ethiopia. (see newspaper for graphic)