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Assailants Hit 2 Cairo Attractions

May 01, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Armed militants turned their wrath against foreign tourists Saturday as a pair of attacks rocked two of the Egyptian capital's most famous and popular attractions. All three of the alleged assailants were killed and nine people were wounded in the afternoon violence near the Egyptian Museum and the Citadel.

The attacks, which included a roadside shooting rampage by two women wearing veils, fed a growing fear that tourists are being systematically targeted by militants in a land that has long struggled to reconcile its crucial tourism industry with its troubled internal politics. The twin strikes also undercut the government's claim that a bombing that killed four people last month in a crowded tourist bazaar was an anomaly.

The rise in violence is playing out against a backdrop of intense political friction: With elections scheduled for the fall, a growing antigovernment movement has become more organized and visible.

The attacks stirred memories of the bloody campaign that raged in Egypt throughout the 1990s, when Islamist militants targeted tourists in the hopes of drying up the tourism industry and damaging President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

"They want to hurt the state and cause confusion. Attacking tourists is the easiest way to do so," said Mamdouh Ismail, a lawyer and former member of Islamic Jihad. "You hit two birds with one stone. You strike at Westerners and harm the government's income from tourism."

In the first of Saturday's attacks, a bomb stuffed with nails rattled the heart of downtown Cairo, exploding on the banks of the Nile between the imposing pink monolith of the Egyptian Museum and a five-star Hilton hotel popular with vacationers and business travelers.

The blast killed one man, who may have been the bomber. Seven people were wounded, including three Egyptians, two Israelis, one Swiss and one Italian, the Egyptian health minister told state television.

Security forces quickly ringed the blast site, carpeting the ground with newspaper to soak up the blood. What appeared to be a man's corpse lay sprawled on the ground. His head, neck and shoulders had been blown off.

"The explosion rocked the car," said Kamel Kamel, a 26-year-old taxi driver who was passing by when the bomb went off. "There was blood everywhere. People were just standing, shocked. We didn't know if there was going to be another one. We just froze."

Two hours later, the violence spread to the ancient streets at the foot of the Citadel on the city's southern edge, where the two women wearing niqab, or face veils, opened fire on a tour bus. Then they turned the guns on themselves and committed suicide, according to a statement from the Interior Minister.

In the crowd that milled at the scene shortly after the shooting, bystanders said that a gunfight had erupted between security agents and the gunwomen. Two Egyptians were wounded in the attack, the health minister said.

Security forces circled the patch of street, pushing away onlookers. The bus came under fire near the gates of the City of the Dead, a vast cemetery known for its Islamic relics and for the homeless families who've taken up residence in its tombs.

Witnesses at the scene reported seeing a pistol, black clothing and puddles of blood on the road near the cemetery gate. One of the gunwomen died immediately, and the other died at the hospital, the interior ministry said.

The attacks came less than a month after an Egyptian man set off a nail-packed bomb in the teeming, tightly packed bazaars in Cairo's old city, killing himself, two French citizens and an American. Investigations have been ongoing; the 40-year-old cousin of the bomber died in custody from an undisclosed cause.

Saturday's violence was apparently tied to the earlier strike in the bazaar. The bomb outside the Egyptian Museum -- a vast trove of Egyptian relics and antiquities -- was set off by a man who was being hunted by police for an alleged role in the bazaar bombing, the interior minister said. The ministry identified the dead suspect as Ihab Yousri Yassin, and said his identity card turned up near his body.

Police had been chasing him when he threw himself off a ramp leading onto a bridge stretching over the Nile, blowing himself up as he fell, the Interior Ministry said. The people injured below were bystanders, the ministry said.

The two women who opened fire on the tour bus also had links to the bazaar bomber, Egyptian officials said. Government sources identified the pair as the bomber's sister and his fiancee.

A group calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the Saturday attacks on an Islamist website, the Associated Press reported. The claim could not be verified. The posting said the attacks were meant as revenge for the regime's harsh crackdown on the residents of the Sinai.

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