At least three South Koreans and an Egyptian driver were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a tourist bus in Egypt near a border crossing with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula on Sunday, security officials said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
It was the first attack apparently targeting foreign tourists to take place in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula — a popular vacation area — since a fledgling insurgency by armed groups began to take shape in the northern part of the region following the July overthrow of elected President Mohamed Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The bomber boarded the bus while it waited near the Egypt-Israel border crossing at Taba in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian security officials told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Egyptian driver and the South Korean guide had disembarked but were close to the bus when Sunday's blast took place, according to the officials.
Rescue workers found three bodies at the scene of the attack, as well as the badly burned remains of one or possibly two other people, said Khaled Abu Hashem, the head of ambulance services in southern Sinai.
Almost all 33 passengers on the bus were wounded by the explosion, with 12 suffering serious injuries. The wounded were being treated in hospitals in Taba and the coastal resort towns of Nuweiba and Sharm al-Sheikh to the south on the Red Sea's Gulf of Suez.
Egypt's Interior Ministry said the bus had been traveling from St. Catherine's Monastery, a popular tourist destination in the south of the peninsula, to nearby Israel when it was attacked. Craft Tours, the bus company, confirmed the itinerary details to Al Jazeera.
Prior to Monday's comments from Egyptian officials, Jean Antoine of Craft Tours told Al Jazeera the bomb was planted in the bus under the driver's seat. He said the bus had been parked the night before outside St. Catherine's monastery.
"I have no doubt this bomb was put on the bus in St. Catherine’s because the bus doesn’t stop in any (other) stations” between St. Catherine’s and the Taba crossing, Antoine said.
State television showed a photograph of the bus with its windows blown out and roof partially torn off. Plumes of black smoke billowed from the site of the explosion on a boulevard lined with palm trees.
Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawy called the attack a "despicable act of cowardice directed at innocent tourists."
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said nine people had been wounded. It said 32 South Koreans were on the bus.
"We are shocked and enraged at the terrorist bombing on the bus... and strongly condemn the act," Seoul's foreign ministry said in a statement.
Three South Koreans — two men and a woman — were killed along with the Egyptian driver, the ministry confirmed. Another 14 were injured.
The tourists were all members of the same church group from the central South Korean county of Jincheon. They were on a 12-day trip through Turkey, Egypt and Israel, according to the South Korean ministry.
"We believe that terrorism can never be justified under any circumstances and such inhumane and unethical acts should be weeded out by all means," the ministry said.
Members of armed groups based in the largely lawless Sinai have stepped up attacks on security forces, killing hundreds, since army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Morsi — Egypt's first democratically elected president — in July after mass protests against him.
If armed groups in the area were behind Sunday's attack, it would mark a shift in strategy to targeting tourists and economic targets and not just Egyptian police and soldiers.
Morsi appeared in court on Sunday on charges of conspiring with foreign groups and carrying out what prosecutors call “terror attacks” in Egypt.
Al Jazeera and wire services