CAIRO — Police said they averted a “massacre” after foiling a suicide bombing and gun attack Wednesday on one of Egypt’s most popular ancient attractions, in a rare assault on the country’s vital tourism sector.
Egypt has been shaken by a tide of attacks claimed by jihadists since the army toppled the democratically elected government two years ago, but the incident in the southern city of Luxor was the first in years targeting tourists.
This has added to fears that unrest could scare off the visitors who are crucial to the economy in a country where tourism accounts for more than a tenth of GDP.
Police said two attackers were killed and another seriously wounded near the Karnak temple in Luxor, a popular site close to the famed Valley of the Kings.
No tourists were hurt in the mid-morning incident and visitors were kept inside Karnak’s ruins, an antiquities ministry official said.
The incident unfolded after a taxi carrying two passengers attempted to enter the parking lot and was stopped by a suspicious policeman, Tourism Minister Khaled Ramy said in a statement.
Police asked to search the trunk, where they found two large bags that made them suspicious, a general from Luxor police told AFP.
When they asked to open the bags, one of the men jumped out of the car, ran away and detonated his explosive vest.
In the ensuing confusion, the other passenger emerged from the car and, joined by an accomplice who had come in on foot, pulled assault rifles from the bags and started shooting.
The police responded, killing one and seriously wounding the other.
Aim to ‘destroy tourism’
Health ministry official Nahed Mohamed told AFP two civilians and two policemen were wounded in the shootout, but not seriously.
Police said the taxi driver was not a suspect.
“If they had managed to enter the temple, it would have been a massacre,” said the general, as 19 fully loaded magazines for the rifles were found in the bags; more than 600 tourists were in the temple at the time.
“We have enhanced security measures in place at all our sites and we continue to take every possible measure to ensure that no harm comes to anyone visiting Egypt,” Ramy said.
No group had yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
But Mathieu Guidere, professor of Arab geopolitics at France’s University of Toulouse, said the incident indicated a change in strategy in jihadists choosing targets.
The aim is “to weaken the Egyptian economy by destroying the tourism industry” and to have “the maximum media impact” as attacks on local targets were not drawing international attention, he said.
Karnak in central Luxor was built on the ruins of Thebes, the capital of ancient Egypt.
The huge temple dedicated to the god Amon lies in the heart of a vast complex of religious buildings in the city, 700 kilometres (435 miles) south of Cairo.
Tourism in Egypt has faltered since early 2011, when a popular uprising toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak after three decades in power.
Years of instability scared off visitors from overseas, damaging the economy and sending Egypt’s foreign currency reserves plunging.
Last year, 10 million tourists visited Egypt, bringing with them $7.5 billion in revenues. That generated 19.3 percent of currency reserves.
Another blow to Luxor
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, who happened to be in Luxor on business Wednesday, strongly criticized the attack.
“We abhor violence of all types, which runs completely counter to our work to end extreme poverty in the world,” he said in a statement, adding that “we must confront extremism by relentlessly creating hope.”
Jihadists have carried out bombings regularly since the army ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, mainly in the Sinai peninsula, where a local affiliate of the Islamic State group has claimed a spate of attacks on security forces.
A government crackdown has left hundreds of Morsi supporters dead, thousands imprisoned and dozens sentenced to death after speedy trials, described by the UN as “unprecedented in recent history”.
The jihadists claim their attacks are in retribution for the crushing of dissent under the administration of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Although tourists have been largely spared, a suicide bombing last year on a tour bus in the Sinai killed three South Koreans and their Egyptian driver as they waited to enter Israel.
Last week, gunmen killed two policemen who worked as guards at the world-famous Giza pyramids in Cairo, in a dawn attack in a deserted area a number of kilometers from the center of the site.
Luxor itself has had to deal with numerous blows, including a deadly hot air balloon crash in 2013 that killed 19 tourists.
The town took several years to recover from a 1997 massacre when Islamist gunmen open fire on tourists at an ancient temple complex, killing 58 foreigners and their four Egyptian guards.