A bomb struck a bus packed with South Koreans near Egypt’s border with Israel, killing four people, signaling that militants may be expanding a deadly campaign against security forces to the vital tourism industry.
Three Koreans and the Egyptian driver were killed in the blast in the Sinai Peninsula town of Taba, and 13 people were wounded, according to government statements. The Interior Ministry said the bus had been in a parking lot after returning from St. Catherine’s Monastery, a popular tourist destination. It wasn’t clear where the bomb had been planted, and no one claimed responsibility.
“We were standing near the crossing and suddenly the bus blew up,” Ibrahim El Torbany, a bus driver in Taba and a witness to the explosion, said in a phone interview. “I can see many injuries, ambulances are here, police sealed off the area and the crossing is closed.”
Footage from the attack aired on state television showed the bus windows blown out and the door gone. The bombing recalled an Islamist insurgency against then-President Hosni Mubarak in the early 1990s, when militants targeted tourists and brought the key industry to a near-standstill. An anti-government militancy surged again following the military’s July ouster of President Mohamed Mursi, with gun battles and bombings spreading to urban centers after initially being concentrated in northern Sinai.
Mursi’s ouster was followed by a military crackdown on Islamists that left hundreds of supporters dead and imprisoned most leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood that fielded him for office. While the group says it is committed to peacefully reinstating the democratically elected Mursi, the government has blamed it for much of the violence that has gripped the country since he was removed and has branded it a terrorist organization.
Authorities cut communications in the area, wary of other attacks, the state-run Ahram Gate reported citing an Interior Ministry statement.
The attack coincided with the start of the latest of several criminal trials against Mursi and other Islamists. In this case, he is charged of colluding with foreign groups to undermine the nation’s security.
The Tourism Ministry condemned the “lowly and despicable act,” spokeswoman Rasha El-Azzaizi told independent television channel ONTV. She said Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou would head to the scene to take stock of the situation.
“Our hearts are bleeding over the efforts exerted over the last period,” she said. Tourism “figures were just starting to improve.”
Egypt’s economy has been struggling to revive from its worst slump in two decades. Foreign investors fled after Mubarak’s 2011 ouster in a popular uprising created a security vacuum, and stayed away amid the political turmoil that followed. Tourist arrivals are already suffering, plunging 18 percent last year to 9.5 million people, the Tourism Ministry said last month.
Militant attacks on tourists, including the July 2005 bombings of Sharm el-Sheikh hotels that killed 64, have swiftly pummeled Egypt’s tourism industry in the past. It was all but wiped out in 1997 when militants killed 58 foreign tourists the ancient city of Luxor, cutting hotel occupancy rates to an average of 18 percent.
El Torbany, the witness to today’s attack, said the nearby Hilton hotel wasn’t damaged in the explosion.
“All of our employees and guests are accounted for and safe, and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” Heather Shaw, a Dubai-based Hilton spokeswoman, said in phone interview.