Gunmen thought to be Islamic militants opened fire on foreign tourists gathered at an ancient temple near the Nile River on 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, also were wounded in the attack. Many of the injured were evacuated by air ambulance to Cairo.
Badawy Ahmed Salem, 33, a cabdriver, 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 in Egypt since Islamic fundamentalists launched their campaign to topple the secular, military-backed government of President Hosni Mubarak in 1991.
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.
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 who said he saw the first moments of the attack.
The man, who declined to give his name, said the gunmen were dressed in bluejeans and black jackets rather than the traditional cotton robes worn by many Egyptians.
“When the shooting started, we ran away,” he added.
Salem, the taxi driver, said from his hospital bed that he was sitting in his taxi in front of the temple with his 3-year-old son when the gunmen opened fire. He said the men were wearing red bandannas on which was written in Arabic, “We will fight until death.”
By Salem’s account, he got an especially good look at the attackers. At one point, he said, one of the gunmen approached his taxi and told him to squat down. “I refused to squat down because I knew he would slaughter me like the others, so he shot me in the ankles instead,” Salem said.
A guard with Egypt’s Antiquities Authority, who declined to give his name, said the gunmen tried to kill police at the temple.
He said he ran inside the temple and hid among the bodies of dead foreigners. But the gunmen then discovered him, he said. He tried to shoot at the gunmen, he said, and was wounded in the shoulder from about 15 yards. “After that, I wasn’t aware of anything,” he said.
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.
Some of the dead were taken to nearby Qurna Hospital, where a Japanese diplomat and a British Embassy employee were in the process of identifying bodies. The British official said there were British citizens among the dead but declined to provide further details.
There was no word whether Americans were 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.