Mubarak unhurt in ambush, rushes back to Cairo

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CAIRO, Egypt -- Ambushers with machine guns raked an armored car carrying Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia yesterday, but he was not hurt and hurried back to Cairo.

Mr. Mubarak promptly blamed the attack on Muslim radicals who assassinated his predecessor and are trying to overthrow his 14-year-old regime.

Two of the alleged attackers and two Ethiopian security officers were killed in the gunfight that erupted as Mr. Mubarak's motorcade drove from the airport into Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, for a meeting of African leaders.

Mr. Mubarak, appearing serious but unruffled, told reporters back in Cairo that his armored Mercedes-Benz limousine, which is carried on his airplane when he travels, stopped the hail of bullets.

"I wasn't afraid at all," he boasted. "One bullet almost went through the window." He said he saw "five or six" gunmen, who opened fire after blocking his three-car motorcade with a vehicle.

He said his attackers appeared surprised that security men with the president leaped out of one of the accompanying cars and opened fire.

The identity of the attackers remained unclear. Mr. Mubarak suggested that they were Muslim fundamentalists sent from Sudan, an Islamic nation long at odds with the more secular Egyptian regime.

Sudan promptly denied the accusation. Ethiopia said the two dead attackers were of "Arab origin," and remained mum about whether others were caught.

Police in Addis Ababa showed reporters a house near the ambush site that they said was a base for the attackers. Police said they found two rocket-propelled grenades and two automatic rifles in the house.

The attack abroad and Mr. Mubarak's hasty return to Cairo -- his car immediately turned around and returned to the airport -- suggested that Mr. Mubarak's harsh crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists has made it more difficult for them to operate inside Egypt than outside.

A caller claiming to represent the extremist Vanguards of Conquest group called news agencies in Cairo praising the attack, but he did not say that the group did it. The organization is a successor to the Muslim fundamentalist group that assassinated President Anwar el Sadat in 1981.

"The Vanguards of Conquest bless this action. If Mubarak escaped this time, he won't escape next time," the statement said. "The Vanguards of Conquest will knock the last nail into his coffin."

Threat from extremists

Since Mr. Mubarak saw Mr. Sadat cut down in a rattle of gunfire on a Cairo military parade stand where they both sat, Mr. Mubarak has known that the Muslim extremists are his most deadly threat.

Mr. Mubarak's regime has tried alternately to placate and intimidate the "Islamicists," whose strength has been growing. On one hand, his government has tried to portray itself as having a Muslim heart. It has offered generous time on state radio and television to Islamic preachers and stayed silent as Muslim fundamentalists exerted more influence in social matters.

On the other hand, the government has tried to crush the fanatics, whom it considers a threat to his regime. By some estimates, the authorities have imprisoned between 10,000 and 30,000 persons suspected of radical activities. Nearly 50 have been executed.

As this campaign has toughened, so has the response of the radicals. They have carried on a low-grade guerrilla war, ambushing policemen, Christians and government bureaucrats from sugar cane fields. They have tried more high-profile assassinations, killing the speaker of the parliament in 1990 and vainly attacking three other ministers.

More than 760 people have died in the skirmishes in Egypt in the past three years.

Mr. Mubarak has shown increasing irritation at the inability of his ministers to crush the opposition, which is tarnishing his other achievements.

Mr. Mubarak's plodding style seemed unlikely to inspire success in a desperately poor nation of 60 million people after the death of Mr. Sadat. But the 67-year-old president has brought Egypt out of the estrangement from the Arab world that followed Mr. Sadat's peace treaty with Israel. He has established himself as a central figure in the Middle East peace process.

He has fended off international debtors and stabilized the country's roller-coaster economy. He loosened some restrictions on the press and on expression, and freed political prisoners that his predecessor had jailed.

And he has become an ally of the United States while still earning grudging respect from African, Arab and other Third World countries.

The attack came as he arrived to attend a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), an annual practice for the president, who wants to bolster ties with the continent that has a geographic, if not ethnic, claim to Egypt.

When Mr. Mubarak's motorcade passed the Palestinian diplomatic mission at about 9 a.m., a blue Toyota jeep slammed into the car that was carrying the Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, just ahead of Mr. Mubarak's black armored limousine. Mr. Mubarak said he then saw people firing automatic weapons from the ground and from rooftops.

'I was cool'

"I was cool all the time. There is a god, and no one is going to live longer than he was given to live," Mr. Mubarak said.

The attack happened in front of the Palestinian mission, and the Palestinian ambassador was reported to have been struck by a bullet in the foot.

Inside the blue Toyota, Ethiopian officials later said they found two hand grenades and about $2,700 in U.S. and Ethiopian currencies.

The OAU meeting convened only 10 minutes late, with Foreign Minister Moussa representing Mr. Mubarak.

When the president returned to Cairo, he emerged from an airplane waving to the ministers and officials who had rushed to the airport to greet him. "As you can see, I look sound and safe and fine," he said.

The attack seemed to bring a sudden burst of warm feelings toward Mr. Mubarak, whose bland style generates little emotion even among his supporters.

"Thank God he was saved. All of Egypt was saved," gushed Tharwat Abazza, an Egyptian writer being interviewed on the radio.

"Everybody loves him. We are so relieved," said Ahmet Tibli, a taxi driver.

It was the third known plot to kill Mr. Mubarak, but the only one to be attempted. Last year, two soldiers and a civilian were executed after being convicted of plotting the murder of the Egyptian leader.

Born in a Nile Delta village, Mr. Mubarak had climbed without -- through the ranks of the air force when he was selected to be vice president by Mr. Sadat. He became president after the assassination of Mr. Sadat, but Mr. Mubarak has never selected a vice president for himself, leaving his succession uncertain.

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