Updated: June 11, 2015 3:30:03 pm
A suicide bomber blew himself up on Wednesday just steps away from the ancient Egyptian temple of Karnak in Luxor, a southern city visited by millions of tourists every year, security and health officials said. No tourists were killed or hurt in the late morning attack.
The attack — the second this month at or near a major tourist attraction in Egypt — marks an escalation and a shift in tactics in a campaign of violence waged by Islamic militants against the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with the extremists shifting from their focus on hitting security forces to targeting Egypt’s vital tourism industry.
Sustained attacks threaten to wreck the industry once more, just as it was beginning to recover from Egypt’s turmoil since 2011. On June 3, gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire outside the famed Giza Pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo, killing two police officers.
Shortly after Wednesday’s explosion, police exchanged fire with and killed two suspected Islamic militants who had arrived at the sprawling, Nile-side temple together with the suicide bomber, the security officials said. Four people, including two policemen, were wounded in the exchange, according to the Health Ministry in Cairo.
The governor of Luxor, Mohammed Sayed Badr, said no tourists were hurt in the bombing outside the famed Luxor site. Speaking to The Associated Press over the phone, he said the attack was “an attempt to break into the temple of Karnak.”
“They didn’t make it in,” he added of the attackers.
Badr also offered a slightly different version of how the attack unfolded. He said three men carrying bags got out of a car in the temple’s parking lot, which immediately made the police suspicious and policemen ordered them to stop.
One of the three then began running, so the police fired at him and an explosive belt he was wearing blew up. A second man had a gun and started shooting at the police before he was shot and killed. The third attacker was wounded in the shootout and arrested by an undercover policeman.
Badr said the nationalities of the three men have yet to be determined. His account and that of the security officials could not immediately be reconciled, but that is common in the immediate aftermath of major attacks.
There were only a handful of tourists and Egyptians inside the temple at the time of the attack, added the security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The explosion left large parts of the temple’s parking lot covered in debris. Hundreds of onlookers and workers from a line of stores just outside the temple gathered after the attack as ambulance cars rushed to the scene.
The last time Luxor had seen such a significant attack was in November 1997, when Islamic militants opened fire on tourists at the city’s 3,400-year-old Hatshepsut Temple on the west bank of the Nile, killing 58.
Tourism is the lifeblood of Luxor, home to some of Egypt’s most famous ancient temples and pharaonic tombs, including that of King Tutankhamun. The city has been hit hard by a sharp downturn in foreign visitors in the four years since Egypt’s 2011 uprising.
Wednesday’s attack bore all the hallmarks of Islamic militants who have been battling security forces in the strategic Sinai Peninsula for years.
Last year, the Sinai-based insurgent group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, which has destroyed famed archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, viewing them as idolatrous.
The campaign of violence in Sinai accelerated and spread to other parts of Egypt following the 2013 military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. The militants say the attacks are in revenge for a massive crackdown on Islamists underway in Egypt.
The attack on the Luxor temple comes as Egypt tries to rehabilitate its vital tourism industry, which accounted for as much as 20 percent of foreign currency revenues before its 2011 revolt that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak and later years of turmoil.
From a high of 14.7 million tourists in 2010, Egypt has had an average of around 9 million a year since then, though officials say tourists slowly are coming back. Government officials say the tourism industry saw revenues jump to $4 billion in the first half of this year, compared to $1.9 billion in the same period last year.
But Wednesday’s attack is also likely to result in cancellations in bookings for Luxor — although that would only involve small numbers, given that the tourist season in Luxor ends around May when temperatures begin to rise above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), forcing tourists to stay away until October.
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