Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Egypt minister recovering from assault

AFP , Jerusalem

Visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher was released from hospital Monday after being assaulted by radical Muslims while he went to pray at Jerusalem's mosque compound, state television said.

He returned to Cairo late Monday night after being treated at the Hadassah hospital on the western outskirts of Jerusalem for three hours, the television reported.

Israeli police said that five Palestinians have been arrested in connection with the assault and that "other arrests should take place in the coming hours."

Palestinian witnesses said that the attackers were members of the fringe Islamic Liberation Party, adding that about 20 of them were waiting for Maher outside the entrance to the al-Asqsa mosque where he had been due to pray after official talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Witnesses said that the assailants had tried to attack the 68-year-old minister at the flashpoint compound -- known to Jews as the Temple Mount and holy to both religions -- but were barred by Maher's security guards.

However he was struck by shoes thrown by the protesters who accused him of being a traitor.

Rescue workers said that Maher was still conscious but complained of breathing problems as he was being evacuated to hospital.

Israeli television showed footage of the minister coughing and puffing and gripping the shoulders of his security guards as he was whisked out of the compound amid a dense crowd.

Medics at the hospital said that he did not have any physical injuries and Maher's spokesman insisted his boss was in good health.

Maher later sought to downplay the incident.

"It was a simple incident which is not worrying," he told reporters on his return to Cairo.

He said the incident would have no impact on Egypt's role as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Cairo would "continue its efforts" for peace in the region.

Jerusalem police spokesman Shmulik Ben Rubi said earlier that Maher had been heckled by Muslims angered by his visit to the site in Jerusalem's Old City.

"As he was reaching the entrance to the mosque, crowds of worshippers shouted `traitor, why are you coming to pray in an occupied land?'" the spokesman told reporters.

"They tried to attack him throwing shoes at him. He took refuge in a small room in the mosque and was evacuated by police and his own security team."

The crowds chanted "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Great) as they closed in on the minister, witnesses added.

But an Egyptian television reporter who was covering Maher's trip to Israel said the crowds were trying to protect the minister.

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