CAIRO: A suicide bomber was behind a deadly blast that tore through a bus carrying South Korean tourists, killing at least four people, as it waited near an Egypt-Israel border crossing in Sinai, Egyptian security officials said.
The bombing Sunday was the first targeting foreign tourists in the Sinai in nearly a decade, raising fears that Islamic militants who have been waging a campaign of violence against security forces in the peninsula are now turning to attack tourism, a pillar of Egypt's battered economy.
No one has claimed responsibility for the blast. But suicide bombings have been a hallmark of the al-Qaida-inspired militant groups behind the nascent insurgency of the past six months, which has been focused in northern Sinai along the Mediterranean coast, away from the tourist centers on Sinai's southern and eastern Red Sea coast.
The bus, carrying 33 South Korean tourists and two Egyptians - a guide and the driver - was waiting to cross into Israel at the border area of Taba when the blast took place.
The Egyptian driver and two South Koreans stepped out of the parked bus and went to the cargo hold. As they reboarded the bus, the bomber pushed in through the open bus door and detonated his explosives, Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif said.
A badly burnt body at the site of the blast is now thought to belong to the bomber, he said. Egyptian forensic experts were at the site on Monday to inspect the badly damaged yellow bus, but there was no word on their initial findings.
The blast killed the driver and three South Koreans and wounded at least a dozen other tourists on the bus, Egyptian security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. The Koreans were two guides and a tourist, the Korean news agency Yonhap reported, citing the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.
The tourists were Christians from the Jincheon Jungang Presbyterian Church who had saved for years to visit Biblical sites on the 60th anniversary of their church, Choe Gyu-seob, a curate at the church, told reporters. He said the bus was about to cross into Israel when the blast took place.
According to an itinerary provided to local media by the church, the sightseers left South Korea last Monday and were to visit Turkey, Egypt and Israel over 12 days.
"My mother was a devout Christian," the dead church member's daughter, surnamed Yoon, was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency. "I don't know how such a thing could happen. I don't know how to react to this."
Other church members cried Monday as they sat in a car in front of the church, south of Seoul.
"We never imagined such a thing could happen. We are shocked and miserable," a male parishioner in his fifties said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He declined to give his name, saying the church has told its approximately 800 members not to speak to news media about the attack.
Egypt saw a wave of attacks against tourists in the 1990s, when Islamic militants based in southern Egypt waged a campaign of violence aimed at toppling the government, also targeting security forces and Christians. The government of then-President Hosni Mubarak crushed that insurgency in the late 1990s.
Since then, the tourism industry grew to become one the country's biggest foreign currency earners and a vital pillar of the economy. The last major attacks on tourists came in a string of militant bombings against resorts in southern Sinai between 2004 and 2006, killing about 120 people. But the tourism industry quickly rebounded.
But tourism has been hit hard by the three years of turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. From a high of more than 14 million tourists in 2010, only around 9.6 came to Egypt in 2011. The following year, the industry began to rebuild, growing back up to more than 10.5 million tourists. But last year, the numbers fell to a new low, hit by the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the violence that has boiled since. According to the Tourism Ministry, 9.5 million tourists visited Egypt in 2013.
Since Morsi's removal, Islamic militant groups based in the northern Sinai along the Mediterranean coast have stepped up a campaign of violence. Their attacks initially targeted the military and police in northern Sinai, but have increasing struck in the capital, Cairo, and cities in the Nile Delta.
Sunday's attack is a potentially heavier blow because the resorts of southern Sinai and the Red Sea coast have been Egypt's strongest draw throughout the turmoil. The area's beaches and coral reefs far from the political unrest centered in the Nile Valley. In 2013, 71 percent of the tourists who came to Egypt went to the Red Sea resorts.