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Militant Radicals Shoot Down EIghteen Outside Cairo Hotel

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post

Masked gunmen raked automatic weapons fire through a dense crowd of tourists outside their hotel Thursday morning, killing 18 people and wounding 21 in Egypt's most deadly terrorist attack.

The visitors, all from Greece, were gathering to board tour buses shortly before 7 a.m. in the main driveway of the Europa Hotel, a mid-priced establishment in Cairo's Giza district, nearly in sight of the pyramids two miles away.

Witnesses said three or four men stopped traffic on the main boulevard outside and then opened fire with automatic rifles and a pistol. The gunmen then jumped into a waiting van and sped away.

There was no claim of responsibility Thursday, but suspicions centered on Islamic militants who have waged a four-year campaign to undermine the secular government of President Hosni Mubarak through various means, including attacks against Egypt's lucrative tourist industry.

The Islamic Group killed eight tourists in 22 terrorist attacks between 1992 and 1994, but a brutal security campaign by the central government appeared to have the militants on the run by the middle of last year.

There was also speculation, however, that Thursday's shooting might somehow be linked to the eight-day-old Israeli offensive in Lebanon, for which Lebanon's Hezbollah, or Party of God, has vowed revenge. The group of middle-aged and elderly Greek visitors, opined photographer Essam Said, 30, "looked like Israelis, so maybe these people thought they were Jews."

"I believe the operation is connected to Lebanon because the Europa Hotel is known for accepting Israeli tourists," said Majdi Hussein, editor of the Islamic opposition newspaper Shaab. "The timing seems to make this the logical conclusion. Also, according to my information, these Greek tourists had come originally from Israel and hence the mistake."

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most influential fundamentalist group, denounced the attack as "a disgrace to humanity." Maman Hodiebi, a spokesman, said such "criminal acts" are "not acceptable, no matter what the cause."

The Greek tour's operator, Mistakidis Tours of Athens, had taken the group to Jerusalem for the Orthodox celebration of Easter last Sunday before heading on to Cairo. Thursday morning the visitors were setting out for a day trip to the port city of Alexandria, founded by the ancient Greeks to link Athens with the land of the pharaohs.

Marina Engliera, 45, gathered a black handbag, a purple silk scarf and a sling to hold her water bottle for a long day's tour under pleasant, sunny skies. She was standing in the lobby when a burst of gunfire caught her in the chest, apparently fired from outside.

"I heard the machine gun and fell on the floor to save myself and I heard screams," said a middle-aged woman afraid to give her name. "I saw my friend. I called her name, Marina! Marina!' and she moved her eyes and then she was still. They covered her. She was dead."

Engliera's scarf and water bottle remained in a pool of blood next to the reception desk well into the afternoon.

Sam Glykis, 62, said he had been standing in the crowded driveway, hoping for a good seat on the bus, when his wife asked him to accompany her back to their room. He was watching impatiently from his second-floor balcony, eager to board, when he heard what sounded like explosions from the street.

"I turned my eyes and saw the smoke of the bullets," he said. "I saw a woman in front fall down, and I saw the blood in the road. I was so stupid that still I came back to the front of the balcony and I was looking."

With bullets tearing through the hotel's glass facade and the staircase blistering under the fire, the terrified crowd fled into the lobby and back to the Europa's restaurant for cover.

Bloody footprints, hours later, ran through the lobby to the left and the right and then down a staircase to the level below. Larger pools of blood marked where some of the wounded had fallen or been carried.

"It was panic," said Bill Pandos, 60. "I was hiding behind a big column in front of reception. I saw people run in injured, with blood running from their legs. One fell down and I picked him up and brought him to the table." The number of casualties, and witness accounts of intermittent pauses in the attack, suggest that the gunmen reloaded after emptying their magazines. There were conflicting reports on the number of gunmen, on whether they entered the hotel, and on what, if anything, they said.

Seven of the wounded were in intensive care Thursday afternoon and another 14 in the general surgery ward.