Egyptian militants claim responsibility for killings Aim was to free leader in U.S., group says

November 19, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt's main Islamic militant group claimed yesterday that its men carried out the attack that left 68 people dead at an ancient temple in Luxor, but said they intended only to take hostages and use them to win the release of their spiritual leader, a blind sheik imprisoned in the United States for plotting to blow up New York landmarks.

The al-Gama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) blamed government police for the carnage, according to a statement by the group faxed to news services.

The 68 people -- including 58 foreign tourists -- died in Monday's attack at the Hatshepsut Temple in Luxor, about 315 miles south of Cairo.

Witness accounts, however, contradicted the Islamic militants' scenario. And a coroner's report released yesterday showed that some of the tourists killed at the temple named for Egypt's only woman Pharaoh were stabbed after being shot.

The attack, the deadliest in the Islamic militants' five-year battle with the secular government of President Hosni Mubarak, dealt a crippling blow to Egypt's $3 billion tourist industry.

It raised questions about Mubarak's ability to protect visitors and sparked criticism of the government's security forces.

The nature of the attack -- an organized undertaking in which the gunmen disguised themselves as policemen and carried high-powered weapons -- also reaffirmed the militants' presence in the country despite harsh government crackdowns in the past five years.

Mubarak visited Luxor yesterday amid tightened security. Dozens of uniformed policemen carrying automatic rifles stood guard at sites of hundreds of tombs and monuments including those of the boy-king Tutankhamen and Queen Nefertiti.

By last night, Mubarak had fired his interior minister, Gen. Hussein Mohammed al-Alfi. Although tour groups had canceled excursions to the Pharaonic sites in Luxor, a few busloads of tourists wandered through the blood-stained monuments during the president's visit.

Mubarak condemned the attackers as "murderers and criminals who do not belong to Islam or any other religion or to the country."

More than 1,150 people have died in the fight between the fundamentalists and the Mubarak government. The attacks, assassination plots and killings of police have been designed to bring down the government and replace it with an Islamic state.

Main objective

But the militants apparently had a more specific objective in the Luxor attack.

Although no Americans died in the shooting Monday, the Islamic Group's aim was to ensnare the U.S. government in its battle.

According to the group's statement, one of its "squadrons" planned to take as many hostages as it could and use them to pressure the United States to free Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned in the United States for plotting to blow up the United Nations building and other New York landmarks.

That plot was uncovered before the attacks could be carried out, but Abdel-Rahman also was said to have advised the six men convicted in the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000.

The group also claimed that 15 of its members participated in the attack. The government maintains that there were only six, all of whom were killed in a gun battle with police. The militants also vowed to continue their military operations until the Mubarak government responds to its demands to establish an Islamic state, stop "the iron fist" policies against them, cut relations with Israel and stop bending to the will of the United States.

Although the group's aim is to overthrow the government, this attack at the heart of Egypt's tourism industry will have lasting effects on the Egyptian people, tourism officials and political analysts said.

"I can say over 99 percent of the Egyptians completely disapprove of this because every family has someone who gains from tourism. A cab driver, a man who works in a restaurant, a tour guide, all of us," said Zahi Hawas, director of the complex outside Cairo where the Great Pyramids and the sphinx are visited by millions of tourists each year.

A campaign by the Mubarak government to wipe out the militant underground has resulted in mass arrests and military trials in the past five years. Analysts of the Islamic militant movement say three generations of leaders have been jailed.

Hard to stop

The movement continues nonetheless because of its decentralized structure. The Egyptian Interior Ministry identified one of the six gunmen yesterday as an Islamic Group member who was wanted in earlier terrorist acts. The agency said Midhat Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Hassan had been seen in Sudan and Pakistan.

Strong mainly in upper Egypt, the movement operates through small units or cells in the poorer villages, analysts say.

The massacre at Luxor was startling not because of the violence, but the numbers that died. "This pattern of violence is an Egyptian industry," said Nabil Abdel Fattah of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

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