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 on 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 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 centres 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.
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 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.
Nearly 30% of South Koreans are Christian, and many are active in overseas mission work, with more than 25,000 missionaries dispatched to 169 countries, according to the Korea World Missions Association's 2013 report.
That mission work came in for sharp criticism in 2007 when a group of 23 South Korean Christians was taken hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Two male hostages were killed during a standoff, while the rest were eventually released. The church that sent its parishioners to Afghanistan has insisted that the trip was only to provide humanitarian aid and not to perform mission work.
Sunday's bombing was the first attack against tourists in Sinai's southern region since a spasm of bloodshed in 2004-6 that killed about 120 people. It is likely to impact on Egypt's slumping tourism industry at a time when the industry was beginning to show slow signs of recovery after three years of deadly turmoil in the Arab nation.