In the bloodiest attack in six years of political unrest, gunmen Monday took over the awesome Temple of Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s most visited sites, and for two hours methodically killed at least 60 Japanese, Swiss, German and British tourists and four others before fleeing, survivors said.
Authorities said after the morning attack, which left at least 24 wounded, that police had immediately pursued and killed all six of the assailants, suspected of belonging to one of the violent Islamic factions bent on overthrowing Egypt’s secular state.
But some survivors said Monday night that they believed there were at least 10 gunmen taking part in the slaughter and that several had escaped.
One survivor said the killers wore red headbands inscribed with black Arabic letters that said “We will fight on to death” and “Gamaa al Islamiya,” the name of this country’s most feared Islamic group. Other reports said Gamaa al Islamiya claimed responsibility for the bloody assault in leaflets left at the scene by the attackers.
“We were up to our knees in blood,” said taxi driver Badawy Ahmed Salem, who reported that he was shot in both ankles by an extremist who had just assured him: “Don’t worry, I am a Muslim. I am not going to hurt you.” The gunman said he had spared Salem’s life only because his 3-year-old son was in the taxi watching.
Speaking from his hospital bed, Salem said he was in his taxi when the attack began. Two gunmen ran into a parking lot and quickly shot two Egyptian police officers, allowing the attackers to work unmolested. Other gunmen then emerged from behind the colonnades of the soaring sandstone temple.
They rained gunfire down on the tourists from two levels of the temple, he and other witnesses said. The terrified tourists, guides and drivers ran for cover or cowered in their buses.
As Salem recounted it, four attackers entered a tour bus near him and started shooting. Then they drew long knives and began to slit the throats of some tourists. “They were pulling them like sheep and slaughtering them,” the 33-year-old driver said.
Amin Meadawy Gobran, 59, another wounded survivor and a private guard working for the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, said he managed to hide in the temple among bodies of tourists already slain. But he was spotted and shot through the shoulder from 15 yards away when he raised his gun at the attackers.
“Now we will have nothing,” Salem lamented. “The tourists were the ones who fed us. . . . How are we going to eat now?”
Monday’s attack was a devastating blow to Egypt’s $3-billion-a-year tourist industry, which brings in 4 million foreigners a year and provides at least 10 million jobs. Hundreds of visitors in Cairo and elsewhere in the country made plans to return to their homes.
Ahmed Youssef, an employee of one tourist agency, told Reuters news service that he had seen a pamphlet left at the scene that said “No to Tourists in Egypt--Omar Abdel Rahman’s Squadron of Havoc and Destruction.”
Islamic militants dislike tourists not only for the way they conduct themselves--in manners considered by some here sinful, foreigners consume alcohol, mix between sexes and wear immodest attire--but also because tourism provides a key economic support for the government, which the religious extremists hope to overthrow.
Abdel Rahman, a blind Egyptian Muslim cleric imprisoned in the United States for conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center and other New York landmarks while a resident of Jersey City, N.J., in the early 1990s, is recognized by Gamaa al Islamiya as its sheik, or spiritual leader. Gamaa al Islamiya, or the “Islamic Group,” considers the secular government of Egypt a worthy target for jihad and vows to set up an Islamic state in Egypt that would be ruled by Sharia, or Koranic law.
The attackers may have chosen their target, erected 3,500 years ago to honor the cult of Hatshepsut, the only woman ever to reign as a pharaoh over ancient Egypt, because it has recently been prominently featured in Egyptian tourism advertisements. The imposing, eerily modern-looking temple has colonnades and open courts and terraces built of sculpted sandstone. It sits against a stunning natural amphitheater in the Theban Hills near Luxor. Only last month, Egypt staged a gala here of the opera “Aida” to mark the centenary of Giuseppe Verdi’s famed work, which debuted in Egypt.
“We are extremely shocked and sad,” Mamdouh Beltagi, Egyptian minister of tourism, said in London, adding that terrorist attacks against tourists have occurred in many countries and that no government can prevent every such crime.
President Clinton denounced the attack, as did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who cut short his planned American visit upon learning of the Mideast developments.
The temple killings occurred even as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak inaugurated an addition at Cairo International Airport and announced plans to expand the Luxor airport in anticipation of a booming tourist industry. He called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet and leaders of the security forces after the attack. More security forces fanned out throughout the Luxor area; cars entering or leaving the city were searched; and a night curfew was imposed.
“The timing is perfect to destroy the upcoming season,” said one tour operator in Cairo, adding that he is bracing for an avalanche of cancellations.
The government stressed that six terrorists had been tracked down and killed. State television reported that one attacker fell in front of the temple and that five others fled in a commandeered tourist bus but were trailed to a mountain lair and killed by security forces.
But eyewitnesses at a hospital denied that police had played the lead role in trapping the attackers. They said that when the gunmen tried to flee in the tourist bus, they were followed by civilians, guards and one or two officers. After the attackers stopped the vehicle to run into the arid hills overlooking the wide Nile Valley here, they were chased down and killed by an angry mob. “The people in Luxor tried to tear apart the corpses of the terrorists. They were prevented by the police. This is the clearest reaction you can get from the Egyptian people and how they feel about this,” said Ahmed Nabil, a reporter for the leading Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram.
Officials with Egypt’s Interior Ministry said the foreigners slain included at least 12 Swiss, two Germans, one French and one Japanese. British authorities said late Monday that six Britons were among the fatalities. At least 14 of the wounded were flown to a military hospital in Maadi, south of Cairo, officials said.
Although there was no definitive word on whether any U.S. citizens were killed Monday, the U.S. Embassy warned Americans against visiting southern Egypt “until the security situation is clarified.”
This was the third massacre of tourists in Egypt in 18 months: 18 Greeks were gunned down at their hotel in Giza, near the famous Pyramids, in April 1996. And on Sept. 18, gunmen threw gasoline bombs, then fired on some Germans--killing nine of them and their Egyptian driver--just as the group boarded a bus after visiting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Monday’s massacre in Luxor was by far the worst single incident in the low-boil war between extremist Islamists and the government. More than 1,100 people have died in Egypt since 1992, mostly terrorists and police.
Aline Kazandjian and Maha Abu Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report from Cairo and Luxor.