Terror at the feet of an Egyptian Queen

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Sixty people, including at least six Britons as well as Swiss, French, Japanese and Spanish tourists, were shot dead by gunmen in front of an ancient temple at Luxor, in Upper Egypt, yesterday in the bloodiest incident of the country's five-year Islamist rebellion.

Robert Fisk says the killers have destroyed one of Egypt's biggest earners - foreign tourism - for perhaps years to come.

In Egypt yesterday, they went for the jugular. What else does the massacre at Luxor - where as many as 60 tourists were slaughtered and another 17 wounded - mean but a declaration of war against the Egyptian government, an attack that strikes at the very heart of the billion-dollar tourist industry?

The six gunmen who turned the courtyard of the 3,400-year-old temple of Queen Hatshepsut into a bloodbath, mowing down the European and Japanese tourists after they had climbed from their bus, were almost certainly members of the Gema'a Islamiya (Islamic group), who have been waging an armed conflict with the government since 1992, claiming President Hosni Mubarak's regime is corrupt and un-Islamic.

The Foreign Office said the number of British casualties was likely to rise to six. Four other people remained unaccounted for.

Most of the tourists had just descended from their bus 500m from the recently restored temple that stands beneath cliffs on the west bank of the Nile when six gunmen - all dressed in black - ran towards them, firing automatic weapons. Screaming in pain and fear, many of the foreigners tried to take cover, falling over each other in their panic.

The gunmen tried to hijack another bus to escape and further casualties followed during a gun battle between the killers and the police. One eyewitness said panicking security police themselves shot dead three French tourists. At least two Egyptian civilians were killed and another nine wounded. Egyptian state television last night claimed all six killers had been shot by the police after being pursued into the desert.

It was a massacre on an Algerian scale, the most ferocious since the start of the five-year uprising. Cairo has repeatedly guaranteed that Egypt - despite a fire-bomb attack on a busload of German tourists in September that left nine dead - was safe for foreign visitors. Now the gunmen at Luxor have turned their words to dust. Almost as shocking for President Mubarak is that the gunmen should have attacked at Luxor, which has a considerable Christian population and appeared an oasis of security amid the conflict in Upper Egypt.

Even after September's attack, questions remained unanswered; the government claimed there were only two attackers, while witnesses saw up to six. The battle between police and gunmen in Luxor reportedly lasted three hours. Why did it take armed police so long to overcome six men?

The six were thought to have dressed in black clothes to look like members of Egypt's black-uniformed security police. Last night, lying in make- shift mortuaries, many of the dead remained unidentified; they had surrendered their passports before their visit to the Valley of the Queens. Other victims lay where they fell and were still there at nightfall - which means the death- toll could rise to as high as 90.

Last month, imprisoned members of the Gema'a Islamiya were calling upon their brothers for a ceasefire and an end to the killing of foreigners. The Egyptian government contemptuously turned the offer down.