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Islamic militants claim responsibility for Egyptian temple massacre; 24 wounded, 62 confirmed dead

Nov. 19, 1997

The Associated Press

Militants blamed for most of the violence in Egypt's five-year Islamic rebellion claimed responsibility Tuesday for the revolt's deadliest attack: the massacre of 62 people at an ancient temple crowded with tourists.

The al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Group, said in a faxed statement that Monday's attack was a failed attempt to take hostages to trade for the freedom of their spiritual leader, a blind Egyptian cleric jailed in the United States for plotting to bomb New York landmarks.

The sandstone terraces of the Temple of Hatshepsut were bloodstained Tuesday, but dozens of tourists warily returned. Many others were fleeing the country, however, and agencies were scrapping tours -- spelling trouble for Egypt's important tourism industry.

President Hosni Mubarak visited the temple on the Nile River's West Bank across from Luxor to reassure tourists, and replaced his interior minister, blaming him for lax security.

Thirty-one of the dead were Swiss, police said. The others included eight Japanese, five Germans, four Britons, including a child, a Bulgarian, a Colombian and a French citizen. Seven of the dead were still unidentified. There were 24 people wounded.

Police shot the six attackers as they tried to escape.

Authorities said one was a member of al-Gamaa, the group that claimed responsibility for the attack.

Al-Gamaa has been a main target of police battling a violent campaign aimed at overthrowing Mubarak's secular government and turning Egypt into a strict Islamic state.

The government has arrested and jailed thousands of suspected radicals, put hundreds on trial and executed 63 people in the past five years. But al-Gamaa and similar radical groups are difficult to fight because of their small, loosely connected cells.

Last year, al-Gamaa took responsibility for killing 16 Greek tourists at a hotel near the pyramids on the edge of Cairo. The group also claimed an assassination attempt on Mubarak while he was visiting Ethiopia in June 1995; he was unharmed.

In its statement Tuesday, the group said the gunmen's 'brave' hostage attempt went awry because police opened fire too quickly, forcing militants to return fire. It accused police of showing negligence toward the safety of tourists.

'The government forces dealt lightly with the lives of the tourists and the citizens, leading to the falling of this great number of dead,'' it said.

Witnesses, however, said the six gunmen opened fire as soon as they entered the temple grounds, spraying wildly with automatic weapons and killing 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians.

A coroner's report said some victims were stabbed after being shot. One Swiss survivor said the 'very young'' gunmen calmly shot victims who had dived to the ground or run for cover behind temple pillars.

Rosemarie Dousse, the Swiss tourist shot in the arm and the leg, hid under the bodies of other tourists for at least an hour.

'They made us get down on our knees. And then they started shooting. A man who was very heavy fell on top of me and the lady behind me also covered me,' she said. 'Then they started again-shooting those who were still alive, in the head.'

Police gunned down one attacker at the site and the five others after they hijacked a bus. Authorities counted only six gunmen, but the al-Gamaa statement said nine others escaped.

It said it had hoped to trade hostages for the release of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, imprisoned 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.

Al-Gamaa urged foreign governments to advise their citizens not to come to Egypt. It also said- despite a recent offer of a cease-fire by some al-Gamaa members- that the group would continue its battle.

'Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya will continue its military operations as long as the regime does not respond to our demands,' it said.

It listed the most important demands as 'the establishment of God's law, cutting relations with the Zionist entity (Israel) ... and the return of our sheik and emir (Abdel Rahman) to his land.''

Al-Gamaa and other radical groups insist that Egypt impose Islam's Muslim law code known as Sharia, which bans alcohol and requires women to cover themselves in veils. Egypt maintains the Sharia is the basis of its laws, but it also allows bars to operate and does not require women to be veiled.

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