JERUSALEM (Feb. 4)
Eight Israelis were reported dead and at least 17 wounded Sunday afternoon, after masked assailants attacked an Israeli tour bus with machine guns and hand grenades near the Egyptian city of Ismailia, on the Suez Canal.
An Egyptian tour guide and a second Egyptian were also reported dead.
An unknown group calling itself the Organization on Behalf of the Oppressed in the Egyptian Prisons claimed responsibility for the attack, in calls to news agencies in Cairo.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telephoned Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on Sunday evening to convey his condolences. Mubarak condemned the “crime against the peace efforts” and promised that Egypt would continue its efforts to achieve peace in the region.
The attack occurred at about 4:30 p.m., but first reports of it did not reach here until 9 p.m. local time. The Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Shimon Shamir, was unable at that hour to give definite casualty figures or to confirm the fatalities.
He said in a telephone interview with Israel Television that some of his consular officials were at the scene of the attack, about 30 miles east of the Egyptian capital, and others were at the Heliopolis Hospital -in-Cairo, where four of the wounded were undergoing surgery.
Five other people were reportedly being treated for light injuries. He said there were reports of fatalities, but he had no confirmation.
Officials in Cairo later confirmed that eight Israelis had died and 17 were wounded, though Radio Cairo was reporting 22 injured.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid telephoned his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Arens, to say that Egypt would allow an Israel Defense Force plane to fly to Egypt immediately to bring home the wounded and the dead.
TWO ASSAILANTS IN CAR
The attack was the most serious on Israeli visitors in Egypt since 1985, when a berserk Egyptian border policeman gunned down a group of tourists on the beach at the Sinai town of Ras Burka.
Israeli authorities first learned of Sunday’s attack from a relative of one of the bus passengers.
Albert Levy, owner of the Ofakim travel agency, which organized the tour, said there were 31 passengers plus a guide on the bus. Twelve of them were from Mevasseret Zion, a village near Jerusalem.
Ambassador Shamir said that according to initial reports, the bus was overtaken by a passenger car, whose occupants opened fire with small arms.
An Egyptian Interior Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying there were two attackers, who showered the bus with bullets and hand grenades from a private car as it passed the bus.
According to Egyptian sources, the bus was Egyptian and carried no indication that its pas sengers were Israelis. Therefore, it appears the assailants were well informed about the intended route of the bus.
Speculation was rife here as to the identity of the perpetrators. Initially, it centered on so-called Nasserite radicals, disciples of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser who refuse to accept Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Others blamed dissident factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization or the PLO itself.
Some analysts linked the attack to reports this weekend that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker is trying to set up a meeting with the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers in Geneva next Sunday to advance the Israeli peace initiative.
Levy said tour buses going to Egypt are not protected by armed guards, either Israeli or Egyptian, and there have never been any problems in the past.
Israelis account for about 10 percent of the Egyptian tourism market, and therefore Egyptian authorities have been known to take special precautions to prevent attacks.
Pundits here were already speculating over what effects the attack will have on the fragile state of Israeli domestic politics.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir must fight off an attack on his peace policy by Likud hard-liners when the party’s Central Committee convenes Wednesday. Shamir said Sunday night that he would now consider postponing the meeting.