Armed men shouting “God is Greater!” firebombed and shot into a crowded tour bus in the heart of this city Thursday, setting off a conflagration and gunbattle that killed nine German tourists and their Egyptian driver.
It was the worst assault on tourists in Cairo in 17 months. The attackers brazenly struck at midday in the busiest part of downtown: Tahrir Square, home to the Egyptian Museum, a world-famous center for Pharoanic antiquities including the caskets of ancient rulers and King Tut’s gold.
Most people’s suspicions immediately focused on Egypt’s violent religious extremists, who have repeatedly targeted tourists in their six-year campaign to transform the country into an Islamic state.
But the government, mindful of the possible consequences to Egypt’s lucrative tourism industry, said the crime was the act of “a mentally disturbed person that could happen anytime, anywhere.”
According to police, one of three suspects arrested after the attack was a deranged former nightclub singer who in 1993 went on a shooting rampage that killed a French lawyer and two American engineers at a five-star Cairo hotel not far from Thursday’s scene. They said he escaped Monday from his mental hospital.
The 33 German tourists were boarding their chartered bus shortly after noon, having just visited the stately, rosecolored museum, which is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Several other buses were parked behind, and the vast square was, as usual, jammed with taxis and minibuses serving the museum - one of Cairo’s main tourist attractions - as well as the Nile Hilton Hotel and several major government buildings nearby.
Suddenly one of the attackers climbed inside and threw down a homemade bomb, a large 7-Up bottle that police later said was filled with gasoline and kerosene, that engulfed the tour bus.
Another firebomb was tossed underneath. Simultaneously, the attackers - witness accounts of their number varied - began shooting. The police, who have routinely guarded all the country’s major tourist attractions since a wave of Islamic violence began in 1992, answered with more gunfire. In the mayhem, there were several explosions, bullets tore through at least four buses and some of the panicked tourists broke windows and dove out.
“I didn’t see anything. I only heard gunshots,” said Beate Helmroth, 38, a tourist from Kassel, Germany, who had just boarded the bus. “Then my husband broke the window and we jumped. There was a big explosion. I got very scared. We crawled to the museum fence, and there was an Egyptian man who dragged us into a taxi and on to the hospital.”
An eyewitness, mechanic Al Sayed Abdullah Hamed, was fixing a taxi near the museum when he first spotted the attack.
“Someone came out from under the bus and then the bus exploded. There was a lot of fire coming out,” he said. “When the bus exploded, police and ambulances scattered everywhere.”
“It was like ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral,’ ” said an Australian tourist, Fabian Muir, quoted by Reuters. “Totally out of control. It went on for like 20 minutes. It seemed to go on forever.”
When it was over, the bus was a charred and gutted shell. Police threw blankets over burned remains of victims in the front of the bus.
In addition to those killed, at least nine of the tourists were injured and seven were hospitalized late Thursday.
The attack could be a severe blow to Egypt’s efforts to convince potential visitors and investors that it has beaten its Islamic insurgency after an iron-fisted policy that has seen thousands tried and imprisoned.
Just Monday, in what was the largest subversion trial to date, a military court sentenced four Islamists to death and 68 others to lengthy prison terms. During that trial, the main militant group, the Gamaa Islamiya, had offered a truce to authorities.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights speculated that Thursday’s attack may have been the Islamic extremists’ answer to the death sentences.
The government, which sees tourism as a major pillar of economic growth and hopes to double the number of foreign visitors to 8 million within the decade, has much at stake in resisting such an interpretation.
“Terrorist attacks against tourists have stopped a long time ago due to the attitude of the Egyptian people,” the Tourism Ministry said in a statement Thursday night.
An Interior Ministry statement said the former mental patient arrested was Saber Farhat, who in 1993 opened fire on foreigners at the five-star Semiramis Hotel. Farhat’s brother Mahmoud was also arrested Thursday.
A police official told reporters that in addition to the Farhat brothers, a third, unidentified attacker was shot and seriously injured.