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Gunmen Kill 60 in Massacre At Egyptian Tourist Facility

By John Lancaster
The Washington Post
LUXOR, Egypt

Gunmen opened fire on foreign tourists gathered at an ancient temple on the Nile River Monday, killing at least 57 foreigners and three Egyptians in the country's deadliest terrorist attack by anti-government extremists.

The gunmen launched their attack about 8:45 a.m. as tourists were arriving in buses at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, a stunning sandstone edifice at the base of a cliff near Luxor's world-renowned Valley of the Kings. Most of the victims were Japanese, Swiss and German tourists killed in a spray of gunfire as they stood in a courtyard in front of the massive three-level temple, authorities said.

About 25 people, 16 of them foreigners, were wounded in the attack. Many of the injured were evacuated by air ambulance to Cairo.

Badawy Ahmed Salem, 33, a cab driver, said the gunmen fired at tourists on every level of the temple. "Then they started getting out knives and stabbing people," he said. "They were pulling tourists like sheep on the floor and slaughtering them. We were up to our knees in blood. Even those who did not die will be dead psychologically."

Police exchanged fire with the gunmen, killing one at the scene while the rest fled in a commandeered bus. Over the course of the next several hours, police killed five more gunmen when they sought refuge in nearby desert, authorities said.

The attack was the most lethal incident of violence in Egypt since Islamic fundamentalists launched their campaign to topple the secular, military-backed government of President Hosni Mubarak in 1991.

Coming after more than a year of relative calm, and repeated claims of victory by government security officials, the violence served as a brutal reminder of the continued terrorist threat in the Arab world's most populous and, by some reckonings, influential country.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But suspicion centered on the Islamic Group and Islamic Jihad, Egypt's two main militant organizations, and a witness said the attackers' red bandannas bore the Arabic words for Islamic Group. The two organizations' targets have included police, government officials, secular intellectuals and, occasionally, foreign tourists in six years of violence that has killed more than 1,000 people on all sides.

Monday's attack was a major setback for Egypt's tourist industry, which has undergone a renaissance of late after several years in the doldrums caused by previous episodes of violence. Tourism is a mainstay of the Egyptian economy and travel agents braced for a wave of cancellations just before the busy holiday travel season.

Details of the attack were sketchy. According to news service accounts and an Interior Ministry statement, the gunmen appear to have hidden in or near the temple and opened fire on the tourists as they milled about in the vast courtyard in front of its main steps.

"Four gunmen were inside and two were waiting outside," said a man who owns a souvenir shop on the main road approaching the temple and said he saw the first moments of the attack.

According to the Interior Ministry statement, police pursued the stolen bus and eventually surrounded it, killing the five remaining militants during an exchange of gunfire. Inside the bus were abandoned guns, homemade explosives and face masks, the statement said.

The ministry reported the death toll at 57 foreign tourists, two Egyptian policemen and an Egyptian tour guide, in addition to the six militants.

Authorities rushed hundreds of Interior Ministry troops to the area after the attack. Government ministers flew down from Cairo and Mubarak huddled with senior advisers, Egyptian television reported.

Security was tight in Luxor after the attack. Police in armored vests manned roadblocks and carefully searched vehicles traveling between Luxor and the west bank of the Nile on a newly completed bridge.

There was no word as to whether there were Americans among those killed, but U.S. diplomats in Cairo were sufficiently concerned that they dispatched an aircraft filled with consular officials to assess the situation and provide assistance as needed, an embassy spokesman said. The embassy issued a statement warning Americans to avoid southern Egypt "until the security situation is clarified and further notice is provided."

The deadliest attack on foreign tourists in Egypt prior to Monday's occurred in April 1996 when militants gunned down 17 Greek tourists and an Egyptian at Cairo's Europa Hotel.