Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz on Tuesday blamed a dispute between two bus drivers who displayed "thuggery" for the crash near Eilat earlier in the day that killed at least 24 Russian tour guides.
"This accident was the result of the drivers' thuggery. Two bus drivers argued between themselves over who would pass the northern checkpoint on the road. The dispute continued in the attempts at overtaking."
Dozens were injured Tuesday afternoon in the accident, one of the worst in Israel's history, as the bus swerved off a narrow desert road and plunged into a ravine.
Mofaz's comments came after the driver of a bus that crashed said he lost control of the vehicle when an object fell on him while overtaking.
The driver made the comments in an interview with Channel 2. He also said that he was not speeding, and did not drive faster than 70 kilometers per hour, below the speed limit.
His remarks came after the driver of another tour bus said the vehicle sped by in a no-passing zone, crashed through a guard rail and rolled down the slope north of the Red Sea resort.
At least 12 of the injured were in serious condition, according to the members of the ZAKA rescue service.
Channel 1 reported that the bus plummeted 80 meters down the dry river valley in the road accident, one of the worst in Israel's history.
The bus was carrying dozens of tour guides who had just arrived on a flight from St. Petersburg, and were en route to Eilat.
The reasons for the crash were still unclear on Tuesday evening.
But national traffic police chief Reuven Edri told Army Radio that he believed the accident was due to the driver's "exaggerated speed and overtaking at a forbidden place."
Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the Russian Union of Tour Operators, told the Russian station Vesti-TV that they were representatives from five Russian tour agencies on a professional scouting trip to Israel. The trip itself had been arranged by Israeli tour company Travelux.
Television footage showed the blue coach overturned at the bottom of the ravine, debris littered the decline it had rolled down from the road. Dozens of wounded and dead were strewn along the slope. Most of them were thrown from the bus as it rolled, medic Gabi Baribo said.
Bodies in white bags were laid out in a row at the bottom of the ravine, which was swarming with rescue workers and soldiers.
Forty ambulances rushed to the scene and the Israel Air Force dispatched six helicopters to evacuate the injured from the desert ravine. The victims were evacuated to Yoseftal Hospital in Eilat, Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon and Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.
The victims who were initially taken to Yoseftal were transported later Tuesday by plane to hospitals in central Israel.
Yoseftal hospital asked doctors and medical personnel on holiday in the city to come and assist with the treatment of the injured.
An Israel Defense Forces officer who was among the first to arrive said he and several others rescued six injured people who were trapped in the bus.
"They were saved because they were trapped in their seats. The rest were scrambled and mangled, spread out along the slope," said the officer, who identified himself only as Sawad because military regulations do not allow him to speak to the media without authorization.
Eilat official Avi Cohen said the accident had occurred on a "very dangerous slope." The road winding through the Arava to Eilat is notoriously steep and peppered with signs warning drivers to be careful.
Russian news agency Interfax reported Tuesday that Russia will send two planes to Israel on Tuesday night, one carrying family members of the crash victims, and the second transporting medical personnel, psychiatrists, and social workers.
After the fatal accident, Jewish leaders in St. Petersburg opened a crisis center to deal with enquiries. The Tourism Ministry in Jerusalem also opened a situation room, which would deal with telephone inquiries. The number to call is 02-666-4358 from inside Israel, and 972-2-666-4358 from outside the country. Yoseftal hospital's emergency number is 1755512.
With the recent lifting of visa requirements for visitors from Russia, thousands of Russian tourists had been expected to visit Eilat over the winter, with as many as 30,000 expected to fly direct to the resort city by the end of April.
Planes with relatives, medical crews due to arrive from Russia
Two planes carrying medical personnel and relatives of the two dozen Russian tourists killed in a bus crash near Eilat Tuesday were due to arrive in Israel Wednesday morning.
The relatives will help identify the bodies of the tourists.
At least 24 Russian visitors were killed and dozens more injured Tuesday afternoon when the bus in which they were traveling swerved off a narrow desert road near Eilat and plunged into a ravine.
The bodies of the victims will be flown to Russia, as will the injured passengers who wish to receive medical treatment at home.
Foreign Ministry officials and the Russia deputy consul were in Eilat Tuesday to help those injured in the crash. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni promised Valentina Matviyenko ¬ the governor of St. Petersburg, where most of the casualties are from ¬ that Israel would provide all the assistance it could in identifying victims and transporting their bodies back to Russia.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was on a state visit to Britain, expressed sorrow and sent his condolences to the families. "This accident requires us to rethink the driving culture in Israel," he said.
Russia's President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday sent their condolences to the families victims, Interfax reported.
Medvedev also wished the injured a speedy recovery.
The Russian president ordered his country's embassy in Israel and the Russian government's emergency response office to help the injured.
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