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Mideast blood bath // Gunmen kill 18 tourists in Cairo

In the deadliest attack yet in the four-year campaign by Islamic militants against Egypt's secular government, gunmen raked the entrance to a Cairo hotel with machine gun fire Thursday, killing at least 18 foreign tourists, most of them Greeks, and injuring 21 others.

While no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place on the road leading to the majestic Giza Pyramids, witnesses said the gunmen yelled "God is Great!" before opening fire.

Authorities said the assault outside the Hotel Europa had the earmarks of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Group, which since 1992 has targeted government officials, police officers and foreign tourists in an effort to overthrow the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

"I heard a loud bang and then I heard shots and I took cover," said Leo Saitaiis, 32, a tourist from Australia who was eating breakfast in a restaurant adjoining the hotel lobby when the attack occurred about 7 a.m.

"I looked up and all I saw were bodies everywhere and pools of blood. People were screaming and crying and running but there was nowhere to go."

The killers escaped.

The timing and location of the attack _ at a hotel frequented by Israeli tourists _ led to speculation that the gunmen acted in response to Israel's military operation in Lebanon against Muslim militants of Hezbollah, the Party of God. The Greek tourists had arrived in Cairo on Tuesday after visiting Jerusalem.

"The timing seems to make this the logical conclusion," said Magdi Hussein, editor-in-chief of Shaab, a pro-Islamist opposition newspaper in Cairo. "The Greek tourists had come originally from Israel and hence the mistake."

But Egyptian officials said there was no evidence to suggest that the militants thought they were targeting Israelis or acting in protest of Israel's barrage of Lebanon.

More than 100 tourists, Greeks and Australians of Greek origin, were waiting to board buses for a day trip to the ancient port city of Alexandria when witnesses said four gunmen emerged from a minivan.

The hooded attackers stopped traffic on bustling Pyramids Road and opened fire. Some witnesses said the gunmen first attacked the bus, then, realizing it was empty, redirected their fire to people on the ground.

At least two of the assailants were armed with assault rifles, emptying their weapons into the crowd before running back to the van and disappearing in Cairo's tangled traffic.

Some of the tourists died where they stood, while others staggered back into the lobby, bleeding from their wounds. Bullets shattered the bus windows and left deep cavities in the stone steps leading to the hotel's main doorway.

Some witnesses said they thought one of the gunmen worked his way into the lobby during the attack, firing constant bursts from his rifle.

Hours later, police were still combing the blood-smeared lobby for evidence. Water bottles and travel bags, soaked with blood, littered the hotel's entry way. Shaken survivors milled about the lobby awaiting word on when they could leave Cairo.

The Greek air force sent two C-130 transport planes to Cairo, one to take home the bodies of the dead and one to carry the wounded and the shocked back to Greece.

"There was panic; I heard machine guns. I saw people being chased and shot at the steps of the hotel," said stunned tourist Vassiliki Marounga on returning to Athens. "I saw pools of blood."

"We saw people dying in front of us," tourist Angela Housea told a Greek reporter in Athens by phone. "I want to get out of this country immediately. We are all in our rooms. It's terrifying."

In all, nearly 1,000 Egyptian police and militants have died in clashes in the past four years and 26 foreigners have been killed in attacks by Islamic insurgents.

The Egyptian government had been optimistic that its harsh security campaign, in which tens of thousands of Islamic fundamentalists have been arrested, had throttled the troublesome militant underground whose attacks cost Egypt some $1-billion in lost tourism revenues in 1993.

Last year, would-be assassins assumed to have ties to the Islamic Group opened fire on Mubarak's motorcade as he arrived for a conference of African leaders in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

But in Egypt, an almost yearlong lull in violence had lured foreign tourists back to Cairo and the Giza Pyramids and restored public confidence in Mubarak's reign.

In the past two years, the Muslim insurgents have largely confined their attacks to southern Egypt. The last major assault on tourists in Cairo took place Dec. 27, 1993, when gunmen attacked a tour bus with explosives and gunfire, wounding eight Austrian tourists and eight Egyptian passers-by.

"I work in tourism and I spent a whole year in which I had to borrow money to live. In March and this month there has been a lot of work, but now I'm afraid people will cancel their trips," said tourist photographer Essam Said, 30, who stood outside the Hotel Europa watching workmen wash blood off the pavement.

"We were very happy that things were coming back and getting better. The government must do something strong to the people responsible for this."

Sharif Elsabei, who manages Presidential World Travel, a New York-based company specializing in tours to Egypt, said there might be some drop in business. But he was uncertain how much, because he said people planning trips to Cairo are already aware of the Muslim insurgency.

"From our experience . . . this is normal for tourists to know there is some kind of movement against the government," he said.