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Attacks in southern Israel leave at least 5 dead

The violence raises concerns about growing instability and lawlessness in the Sinai desert region.

August 18, 2011|By Edmund Sanders | Los Angeles Times
  • Paramedics carry an injured person after an attack in southern Israel.
Paramedics carry an injured person after an attack in southern Israel. (Associated Press )

Reporting from Jerusalem — Gunmen near the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat launched a coordinated attack Thursday against three civilian and military targets, killing at least five people and wounding 20 more, Israeli military officials said.

The attacks shattered a period of relative calm along the Israel's border with Egypt and heightened concerns about growing instability and lawlessness in the Sinai desert region.

In one incident, gunmen in a car opened fire on a public bus as it drove south from Beersheva to Eilat on a highway near the Israel-Egypt border, injuring nine passengers. Israel Defense Forces responded to the scene and engaged in a firefight that killed three gunmen in the car, the military said.

It was not immediately clear who or what group was behind the attacks.

Shortly after the initial strike, a private car, also traveling south, was struck with an anti-tank missile, the military said. Five passengers were reportedly killed.

A third attack around 1 p.m. involved roadside bombs apparently set to explode next to Israeli forces as they responded to the emergency. Several soldiers were wounded. Israeli television showed pictures of one soldier in a bloodied uniform rushing into a local hospital. In the parking lot was an empty blue minivan -- a child seat strapped in the back -- with its windows shattered.

IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai called the attacks "grave and complex."

Such strikes have been relatively rare in Israel in recent years, but some fear rising tensions with Palestinians and the lack of peace talks could drive some extremists to resort to violence. Instability in Egypt, particularly in the Sinai, is also stirring worries in Israel.

Some witnesses reported that the gunmen appeared to be wearing Egyptian uniforms, but Egyptian officials denied any involvement and vowed to cooperate in the investigation.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel holds Egypt partly responsible.

"It reflects Egypt's failing hold on Sinai and the rise of terror elements," Barak said Thursday. "This terror attack originated from Gaza. We will exhaust all measures against the terrorists."

After the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt this year, the long-restive Sinai region has spun further out of control. This week, Egypt's military dispatched more than 1,000 soldiers to the region in a crackdown against armed groups believed to have launched several attacks in recent months against a natural gas pipeline that exports supplies to Israel and Jordan.

Israel supported the offensive against the Sinai groups. It accuses Bedouin tribes and anti-Israel extremist groups in the northern Sinai of smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas.

Hamas officials could not be reached Thursday. According to one report, Hamas began evacuating its facilities in anticipation of retaliatory air strikes from Israel.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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