CAIRO — An estimated 2,000 Egyptian paramilitary security forces went on a rampage Tuesday night and early today, burning and looting major tourist hotels near the Pyramids and fighting running gun battles with other troops sent to quell their revolt, witnesses said.
The U.S. Embassy began evacuating tourists from the area as police and army units cordoned off the roads leading to the Pyramids with trucks and armored cars.
The disturbances erupted at about 8 p.m. Six hours later, they were continuing and seemed to be spreading as new roadblocks went up and the staccato sounds of automatic weapons fire peppered the night air.
The disturbances spread early today to Cairo International Airport, which was closed when shooting erupted at a police station nearby. Western diplomats said there were also reports of two explosions in the area, but details were not immediately known.
Military sources said that at one point tanks were used around the hotels, and a curfew has been ordered in the Giza area.
Casualty figures were not immediately available, but a U.S. Embassy official said there were no reports of foreigners being injured.
Witnesses said the revolt started when members of the black-uniformed Central Security Forces, a paramilitary unit used for riot control and guard duty at government offices and foreign embassies, attacked the Holiday Inn, Mena House and the Jollie Ville, three hotels in the Giza section of Cairo near the Pyramids.
The Holiday Inn and the Jollie Ville were both said by witnesses to have been heavily damaged, the Mena house less so. Dozens of cars and other vehicles parked outside the hotels also were destroyed by the rampaging security forces.
Both the scope of the rioting and the fact that it was carried out by security forces were unprecedented in modern Egypt, and it was seen as a major blow to President Hosni Mubarak whose government, beset by a growing economic crisis and a series of foreign policy setbacks, is encountering increasing opposition, diplomats and other observers said.
'Could Ignite Explosion'
"What happened tonight (Tuesday) is very serious because the entire country is full of frustration and something like this could ignite an explosion," an Egyptian government source said.
The official Egyptian Middle East News Agency, without reporting the full extent of the rioting, said the incident was touched off by a "false rumor" that conscripts in the 60,000-man security force were about to have their tour of duty lengthened from three to six years. "Some Central Security soldiers went out of their barracks and attacked cars and houses near their camp," it said.
Witnesses and soldiers manning a roadblock near the scene said the rebel security forces, whom they estimated to number at least 2,000, launched their protest with a firebombing attack on the hotels.
Although the Egyptian media portrayed the incident as a dispute over conscription, other official sources said they feared that Islamic fundamentalists, who are believed to have infiltrated the military, may be to blame.
"This kind of disruption supports the suspicion that the fundamentalists may have infiltrated this group. The fact that they attacked foreign hotels indicates that something fishy is going on," said one Egyptian official, who also requested anonymity.
Other sources said a dispute over pay--the security forces receive only $4.60 per month, plus room and board--as well as tensions with the regular armed forces may also have contributed to the revolt.
Used as 'Counterbalance'
The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat built up the security forces "as a counterbalance to the army," and there has always been tension between them, one Egyptian official said. "It is a precarious balance and if they are fighting it is a serious thing," he added.
Reporters who reached a forward roadblock late in the evening heard gunfire in the background and saw rows of fire trucks, several with smashed windows. While they were talking with officials, the gunfire moved closer. Suddenly, at about 2:10 a.m., panic erupted, and the fire engines took off. Four unarmed soldiers jumped into the car in which the reporters were riding and ordered them to flee.