Gunmen firing submachine guns from a passing car shot and killed an Israeli diplomat and wounded his wife and secretary as they drove to work here this morning.
There was no immediate indication who the gunmen were, but a statement delivered to Reuter news agency said the attack was carried out by a previously unknown group called Egypt's Revolution, "and will be repeated until the Israeli enemy leaves the country."
The assassination was the first in Egypt of such a sensitive foreign political figure since the slaying 14 years ago of Jordanian prime minister Wasfi Tell by Palestinian militants. It came despite the traditional efficiency of Egypt's security services in preventing such incidents -- apart from the assassination in 1981 of president Anwar Sadat by a right-wing conspiracy involving members of the Egyptian Army.
Today's attack came at a time when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat are trying to work out an approach toward Israel to broaden the peace formalized five years ago between Egypt and Israel. These efforts have been bitterly opposed by many in the Arab world, especially dissident PLO factions and Syria.
[In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said he would not speculate on who was behind the attack but he said that "in terms of targets and timing" it "appears to be an effort at slowing down or interrupting the peace process" between the Israelis and the Arabs.]
Both the Israeli and Egyptian governments indicated they would attempt to keep the assassination from damaging the already fragile relations between the two former enemies.
Israeli officials in Jerusalem called the attack "worrisome" but said they did not believe it would affect current attempts by Israel and Egypt to normalize relations, strained by the war in Lebanon.
In recent weeks, Egypt -- despite some domestic opposition -- has shown signs of seeking to improve relations with Israel, promising to remove restraints on trade and tourism despite a deadlocked dispute involving a strip of land at their border in Sinai.
Although Prime Minister Shimon Peres expressed "deep shock at the criminal terrorist attack," Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said they expected that the Egyptian government's reaction to the incident would offset any tension surrounding it, Washington Post correspondent William Claiborne reported from Jerusalem.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel-Meguid expressed regret over the shooting and sent a message of sympathy to Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Egypt strongly condemned "this criminal act" and said authorities "will take every legal measure to apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice."
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, however, told reporters that "Israel will find a way to hit the terrorists, and Egypt is not free from the elementary duty not only to take action to capture these criminal murderers, but also . . . to do everything so that the organization of murderers will not be able to act or attack in Egypt."
The slain diplomat, Albert Atrakchi, 34, an administrative attache, was driving to the Israeli Embassy from his home in the Cairo suburb of Maadi when the attack occured about 8:30 a.m., officials said. With him were his wife, Ilana, 24, and his secretary, Mazal Menashe, 24.
The attackers opened fire from their vehicle, reportedly a red Fiat, at the Volkswagen sedan driven by Atrakchi, witnesses said. Police said they found 17 shell casings at the scene and numerous bullet holes in the diplomat's car.
Atrakchi was killed instantly, authorities said. Israeli Embassy spokesman Isaac Bar-Moshe said the two women received bullet wounds in the legs, arms and face. They were reported in good condition after surgery.
Bar-Moshe said most Israeli Embassy personnel in Egypt are not provided with bodyguards, but only guards to protect their residences. He said Atrakchi had arrived in Cairo just three or four months ago.
The site of the shooting -- just a few yards from Atrakchi's home -- was sealed off by police immediately after the attack. Egyptian authorities said they were conducting "a feverish search" for the assassins.
The statement delivered to Reuter here in the name of Egypt's Revolution said, "Our valiant armed men today, in defense of our freedom and dignity, launched an attack against members of the Israeli intelligence in Cairo."
The statement praised Khaled Islambuli, the Moslem militant who was executed for leading the assassination of Sadat, and said the attack succeeded in "sending them [the Israelis] to hell, and will be repeated until the Israeli enemy leaves the country."
The statement denounced the U.S.-sponsored Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and said the organization had previously called on Mubarak to rescind it but "regrettably, Mubarak did not listen to the wishes of the people and submitted to the Israeli enemy and his American masters, and we found the Israeli flag desecrating our land."
The organization also claimed responsiblity for a shooting 18 months ago in which Zvi Kedar, also an Israeli administrative attache, was shot in the hand.
In an unexplained attack three months ago, a grenade hit an apartment next to the Israeli Embassy. No one claimed responsibity for it and nobody has been apprehended in either incident.
*Another group, calling itself the Great Islamic Jihad Organization, also claimed responsibility for today's shooting in a call to a U.S. television network, United Press International reported.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yitzhak Navon told Israeli Army radio the slaying was "very painful and worrisome," but he added that "this should not hamper efforts to fortify peace with Egypt."
A similar view was expressed by Egypt's charge d'affairs in Tel Aviv, Mohammed Bassiouni, also quoted on Israeli Army radio. "The incident in Cairo was intended to sabotage the peace process," his statement said, "but it will not succeed." He said he believed the gunmen had come from outside Egypt and that it was unlikely the Egyptian opposition was involved, because Egypt "has accepted the 1979 peace treaty with Israel."
Israel opened its Cairo embassy in 1979, after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It is Israel's only embassy in the Arab world.