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Egypt would love to welcome tourists back en masse, but national political efforts are not laying the groundwork for a safe future.
A bus full of South Korean was hit by a bomb yesterday near Egypt’s border with Israel, killing four people, in a sign militants may be expanding a deadly campaign against security forces to the tourism industry.
Three Koreans and the Egyptian driver were killed, and 17 people injured in the blast in the Sinai Peninsula town of Taba, according to government statements. The Interior Ministry said the bus was 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 has 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 scene 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. Authorities cut communications in the area, wary of other attacks, the state-run Ahram Gate reported, citing an Interior Ministry statement.
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.
South Korea condemned the attack and urged its nationals to leave the Sinai Peninsula and the Gulf of Aqaba, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul said in a statement. President Park Geun Hye called for a task force to ensure the safety of South Koreans in the region, according to the website of her office.
The bus was carrying 32 South Koreans when the bomb went off and all of them except one tour guide were from a church in central South Korea, the ministry said in a text message. The tourists were on their way to Israel to make a religous pilgrimage when the blast happened, Lee Byeong Chan, a church official, said by phone.
“It’s a lot more sophisticated than the ’90s when the main focus of the attacks were tourists and security forces,” said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Now you have those who believe in the legitimacy of the coup and those who do not; those who believe in the legitimacy of Mursi and those who do not.”
Mursi’s ouster was followed by a military crackdown on Islamists that left hundreds of supporters dead, and led to the imprisonment of most leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood that fielded him for office. While the group says it’s 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.
Yesterday’s attack comes as the government is attempting to revive the troubled tourism industry, while pushing ahead with its political transition plans following Mursi’s removal.
“Such despicable acts won’t deter the Egyptian government and people from completing the road map,” Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou said, according to an e-mailed statement from the ministry.
“The perpetrators will find no hiding place and we will not rest until we have brought all those who planned, funded and carried out this atrocity to justice,” presidential spokesman Ehab Badawy said, according to an e-mailed statement.
The interim government points to the approval of a new constitution passed in a referendum last month as evidence of the support it has for the transition. Presidential elections are expected to follow. Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Seesi, the man who led the ouster of Mursi in July, won the green light of the military to run for president in the next elections.
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.
“Our hearts are bleeding over the efforts exerted over the last period,” Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Rasha El-Azzaizi told independent television channel ONTV. Tourism figures were “just starting to improve,” she said.
Egypt’s economy has been struggling to recover 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 plunged 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, badly damaged Egypt’s tourism industry in the past. It was all but wiped out in 1997 when militants killed 58 foreign tourists in the ancient city of Luxor, cutting hotel occupancy rates to an average of 18 percent.
El Torbany, the bus driver who witnessed the bomb attack, said the nearby Hilton hotel wasn’t damaged in the explosion.
“All of our employees and guests are accounted for and safe,” Heather Shaw, a Dubai-based Hilton spokeswoman, said in phone interview. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,”
With assistance from Ahmed A. Namatalla in Cairo and Sam Kim in Seoul. Editors: John Simpson, Andrew Davis. To contact the reporters on this story: Tamim Elyan in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org; Salma El Wardany in Cairo at email@example.com; Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Davis at email@example.com; Tarek El-Tablawy at firstname.lastname@example.org.