Egyptian crackdown leaves 26 dead

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The Independent Online
AT LEAST 26 people were killed in four separate gun battles as security forces continued their crackdown on Muslim extremism in Egypt this week, police said.

The death toll was the highest in a 24-hour period at any time since the eruption of violence against the agents of the state by Islamic extremists in the aftermath of the assassination of President Sadat in 1981.

Police said that the dead included four policemen, and the wife and child of one of the extremists. The first incident took place in Aswan, 600 miles south of Cairo, and long popular with European tourists seeking repose in the winter sun beside the Nile. Aswan remains a byword for tranquillity. But it has also had its Islamic extremists.

On Tuesday night, shortly after the iftar meal ending the daytime fast for Ramadan, police stormed al-Rahman mosque in Aswan, the main focus for the el-Gamaat el- Islamiya (Islamic Group) leading the Islamic challenge to the government. In the ensuing gunfight, 14 extremists and a policeman were killed, and 35 people were injured, police said. A police spokesman said that they had received a tip that those inside the mosque had planned to stage an anti-government demonstration.

The Aswan incident prompted subsequent operations by the security forces in some of the poorer neighbourhoods in Cairo where the Islamic Group have a foot hold: Imbaba; Boulak Dakrur; Zawiya al-Hamra; and Qaliubia, north of the capital.

The government crackdown on Islamic extremists has increased in severity. Thousands of suspects have been detained, and scores put on trial. President Hosni Mubarak has used military courts to speed up proceedings. On Tuesday the trial began of 49 men accused of armed attacks on tourist buses and boats in Upper Egypt, between Cairo and Aswan.

The Egyptian authorities have been at pains to point out that in numerical terms, the attacks on tourists have been minimal. However, the tourist industry has been devastated. The government had hoped to earn some pounds 2bn from tourism this year. Industry sources say that receipts are down by about 50 per cent.

Most of the Islamic Group's attacks have been on other Egyptians. More than 90 people have been killed in sectarian strife, between Islamic militants and the Coptic Christian minority, or in clashes with the security forces.

The crackdown is a belated response to the growing Islamic trend in Egypt. Egyptian policy aimed to co-opt moderate Islamic elements into the government, but this encouragement also raised the profile of the more extreme groups that have confronted the government directly.

Last November the security services made a sweep through the teeming streets of Imbaba and picked up 700 accused of fomenting sedition. Yesterday's operation in the same neighbourhood proved bloodier. Police said there was an exchange of fire in which one policeman and what they called an extremist were killed.

The spiritual leader of the Islamic Group, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, lives in New Jersey. Two members of his mosque congregation are being held in connection with the bombing last month of New York's World Trade Center.

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