CAIRO -- More than 35 members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement were killed while being transported to prison, Egyptian officials said, but the circumstances of their deaths remained unclear Monday.
The Interior Ministry said the prisoners had tried to escape Sunday by taking an officer hostage. The police responded by firing tear gas into the van, suffocating 36 to death and “foiling the escape plan,” the ministry said. The officer survived, it said.
The Brotherhood, however, alleged that the ministry had changed its account of the incident several times, at one point reporting that the prisoners were killed with live ammunition. The Brotherhood also reported that 37 prisoners had been killed.
On Sunday night, state media reported a different version of events, saying that the transport convoy was attacked by armed assailants trying to free the detainees. They were reportedly being taken to Abu Zabaal prison, near the capital, to serve 15-day sentences on charges related to a bloody weekend stand-off in Cairo's Ramses Square.
Security forces responded with tear gas, which killed the assailants and prisoners, according to Egypt's Middle East News Agency.
The Brotherhood characterized the deaths as “assassinations” that were part of a “war of extermination” against Egyptians who continue to oppose the July 3 military coup that deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Security forces have killed more than 800 Brotherhood supporters and anti-military demonstrators since Wednesday.
“We hold the Interior Ministry and the coup leaders politically and criminally responsible for these horrible crimes that don’t appear will end,” the Brotherhood said in a statement.
The violence continued Monday with at least 25 police officers killed when militants ambushed two mini-buses in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
Egyptian state television reported that militants forced the off-duty police officers from the buses and shot them execution-style outside the town of Rafah, which borders Israel and the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. Other reports suggested the officers were killed when the vehicles were struck by rocket-propelled grenades.
It was unclear whether the ambush was in any way connected with the previous day’s deaths. Security forces in Sinai have been battling Islamist militants for months.
The Interior Ministry initially reported that 24 officers had been killed, but raised the figure when an injured officer succumbed to his wounds.