An Israeli tourist bus carrying Russian travel agents plunged into a ravine near the resort of Eilat today, killing at least 24 people.
“This is the worst incident involving tourists to Israel that I know of,” said Oren Drori, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Tourism.
The bus “flipped over several times” as it rolled into the ravine, said Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. He ruled out the possibility of a terrorist attack. Shai Alazmi, a spokesman for the emergency medical service Magen David Adom, said 24 people were killed and 32 injured. Russian Ambassador Pyotr Stegny said 30 people died and 21 were injured. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
Fifty Russian travel agents were aboard the bus, Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Union, said by telephone in Moscow. More than 400,000 Russian tourists have visited Israel this year, more than double the number the previous year, Drori said.
Israel and Russia eliminated visa requirements in September and in November agreed to direct charter flights between Eilat and Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The army dispatched an elite commando rescue unit, several helicopters and troops from nearby bases to the crash site to help survivors, an army spokesman said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
The bus was travelling from Ovda airport in the Negev Desert to Israel’s southern-most city. “Five travel agencies in St. Petersburg organized an introductory tour for 50 travel agents,” Tyurina said.
The injured were evacuated to Yoseftal Hospital in Eilat. Seventeen people were in serious condition, said Sigal Dror, a hospital spokeswoman. Several of the injured were airlifted to other hospitals in Israel, she said.