Two masked men armed with machine guns and hand grenades opened fire on an Israeli tour bus Sunday, killing at least nine passengers and wounding 16 others on a narrow stretch of desert highway near Cairo.
Authorities said the bus, bound for the Egyptian capital with 31 Israeli tourists, was forced to stop shortly before dusk by two men who climbed aboard and began attacking passengers with machine guns and at least four grenades.
Several passengers were apparently killed as they scrambled to escape the vehicle, according to police sources near the scene.
A group calling itself the Organization for the Defense of Oppressed in Egyptian Prisons, in a call to a Western news agency, claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was in response to the alleged torture of Muslim militants by Egyptian authorities.
"Jews should not live in comfort on Egyptian soil while the youth of Islam are harvested outside jails and burned by whips inside them," the caller said.
The attack came at a critical juncture in Egyptian-Israeli relations, just a week before the foreign ministers of the two countries are scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III to organize a historic peace dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis in Cairo.
The Egyptian government deplored the killings, expressing its "deep regret for this monstrous and brutal incident, which resulted in innocent people losing their lives and sustaining injuries."
"We shall spare no effort to take all the necessary measures to confront any attempts to infringe on the stability and security of Egypt, or any attempt to undermine the safety of citizens and foreigners alike," said the statement, released by the Interior Ministry.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who faces an important vote of confidence this week from his own Likud Party over his Palestinian peace overtures, said:
"We get the impression that the murderous attack in Egypt on Israeli tourists was organized, and its purpose was to kill a large number of Jews from Israel. It is an extremely serious incident and shocking. We hope the Egypt authorities will catch the murderers and punish them severely."
In Washington, the State Department said, "This terrible incident is an obvious attempt by the enemies of peace to halt efforts at reconciliation and dialogue."
The Egyptian Interior Ministry reported nine people dead, including an Israeli who died of his wounds in a Cairo hospital early today, and 16 others wounded. Reuters news agency reported that two Egyptians also died in the shooting. Israel Television, quoting Israeli sources in Cairo, said 15 people were killed and six wounded.
Dorit Shavit, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy here, said that many of the tourists aboard the bus were academicians bound for an eight-day tour of Egypt. "I think they came only as tourists, not officially," she said.
The tour was launched aboard an Egyptian-owned bus from the town of Rafah on the border between Egypt and Israel and had cleared the Suez Canal port city of Ismailia, about 40 miles east of Cairo, when the two gunmen drove up in a white Peugeot and forced it to halt, authorities said.
Police at Tenth of Ramadan, about four kilometers from the scene of the attack, told The Times that two Egyptians may have boarded the bus somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula after it left Rafah, but that report could not be confirmed elsewhere.
A correspondent for Israel's Army Radio, who was in a second tour bus nearby, quoted a survivor as saying the driver of the Peugeot signaled the bus to stop, and the guerrillas then opened fire on the bus before boarding it.
Egyptian authorities said two of the four grenades lobbed at the passengers exploded aboard the bus.
"The vehicle became like hell at once, there were shots from every direction, grenades were thrown inside the bus and everything was covered with smoke," survivor Yigal Barak said. " . . . Everyone saw his death in front of his eyes."
Commenting on Army Radio, Barak, who was not injured, said, "It seemed like an eternity, but in fact it lasted for several minutes only. Then there was a total quiet, and only screams were heard. Bodies were scattered everywhere."
Barak said Egyptian motorists who passed the scene refused to stop, and a group of police officers and soldiers who arrived later were afraid to approach the bus "because there were several live grenades around it."
Wounded passengers were taken to hospitals in Tenth of Ramadan, Ismailia and Cairo, and many were subsequently evacuated to Israel in a series of hastily scheduled flights throughout the night.
By late evening, at least four bodies were still lying at the scene of the attack, and Israeli Embassy officials were angrily demanding permission to remove them, according to police sources at the scene. The entire right side of the bus was heavily damaged, with windows shattered and smoke blackening much of the interior.
The group claiming responsibility for the attack was previously unknown, but the incident comes at a time of increasing tension between Islamic fundamentalists and Egyptian authorities, who have been accused by human rights organizations of using torture on detainees in Egyptian prisons.
Complaints about the tough tactics and harsh public criticism of political opponents employed by former Egyptian Interior Minister Zaki Badr, who described Muslim fundamentalists as "mad dogs," resulted in Badr's dismissal last month.
But there has been renewed violence in the weeks since Badr's departure, including the fatal shooting by police two weeks ago of a man in Asyut, long a hotbed of fundamentalism in Egypt, during demonstrations to protest the authorities' closure of one of the city's main mosques. Other recent demonstrations have met with similar blunt crackdowns by police. Hundreds of Islamic fundamentalists remain jailed in Asyut, and others have been imprisoned in the past week in Cairo during demonstrations and the firebombing of a police car in the district of Ein Shams.
The Interior Ministry statement said the men who attacked the bus spoke Arabic without Egyptian accents, but the caller claiming responsibility spoke classical Arabic with an Egyptian accent.
"The organization launched the attack on the Jewish bus to discipline (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak's regime and his interior minister, who started his term with savage torture of prisoners in Torrah prison," the caller said, concluding his statement with the words: "Allahu akbar (God is great)."
Sunday's attack was the third bloody assault on Israelis inside Egypt since Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
In August, 1985, gunmen shot and killed an Israeli diplomat while he and two other Israeli Embassy employees traveled to work.
In October, 1985, an Egyptian policeman fired on Israeli tourists in the Sinai Peninsula beach resort of Ras Burka, 28 miles south of Israel's southern tip. Seven tourists died, and the Egyptians agreed to pay compensation to the surviving Israeli families.
Times staff writer Daniel Williams contributed to this report from Jerusalem.