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The passengers of the luxury river cruiser called the Nile Elite were just sitting down to lunch when a series of loud cracks rang out from the west bank of the Nile. Many ran to windows, eager to see what sounded like a traditional celebration on shore.

What they saw were four men with scarves wrapped around their faces, each of them pointing automatic rifles at the ship. The passengers screamed and dived for cover. The cook and a tour guide collapsed with bullets in their legs. The ship manager's office was badly shot up. Twelve windows elsewhere on the vessel were broken. Some of the bullets pierced the ship's metal hull.``I was very sure this was no celebration. I cried very loudly, 'Everybody on the floor, at once!' ' said the manager, Said Batouty. ``Imagine, 140 Germans on board. It could have been a complete disaster. In a 10-year career, I've never seen anything like this.'

But it wasn't to be the end of the attacks. On Wednesday afternoon, gunmen hiding in a farm field opened fire on a small tour bus in southern Egypt, killing a British tourist and wounding two others. An Islamic fundamentalist group boldly claimed responsibility for the attack.

And on Friday, gunmen opened fire on another cruise boat carrying foreign tourists. No casualties were reported in Friday's incident.

After months of escalating clashes with police, Islamic extremists have moved against Egypt's tourist industry, a $3 billion-a-year bonanza that is the country's biggest money earner and, for religious conservatives, the irritating source of waves of beer-guzzling, immodestly clad foreigners.

``Tourism is our second target, after high-level political leaders, in the bid to implement Islamic law in Egypt,' outlawed fundamentalist group Gamaa al Islamiya said in a statement Thursday acknowledging the attack on British tourists.

A few weeks earlier, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, the most militant of the Muslim groups under the umbrella of Gamaa al Islamiya, telephoned the British Broadcasting Corp. in Cairo and warned that ``the security of tourism is tied to our security in spreading the message of Islam.'

Overcoming a slump in tourism caused by the Persian Gulf War, Egypt lured back 3 million tourists in the fiscal year ending June 30 and boosted tourism revenues past those of oil and the Suez Canal.

So tourism officials are scrambling to contain the damage. They point out that tourists are still safer in Luxor than they would be in New York.


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