(USAToday) – Masked gunmen driving SUVs opened fire Friday on a caravan of Coptic Christian pilgrims heading to a monastery south of Cairo, killing at least 28 men, women and children, according to the local governor and Egyptian security and health officials.
The attack came one month after Pope Francis visited Egypt in part to show his support for the Christians of the Muslim majority Arab nation who have been increasingly targeted by Islamic militants.
Although no group immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attack, the Islamic State affiliate in Egypt vowed — following the pope’s visit — to escalate attacks against Christians, urging Muslims to steer clear of Christian gatherings and western embassies the militants planned to target.
While the official death toll, according to Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Mugahed, remained at 26, governor Essam El-Bedewy, of the Minya governorate where the attack occurred, told ONTV Live that 28 people were killed and 23 injured.
The higher death toll was also confirmed by Egyptian security and medical officials, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Mugahed said the gunmen, riding in three SUVs, ambushed a minibus and two cars of pilgrims heading along a desert road to the monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor in the Minya governorate, about 130 miles south of the Egyptian capital.
The ministry said there were between eight and 10 attackers dressed in military uniforms, according to witnesses. The statement said the assailants were “randomly shooting” on the caravan of pilgrims, according to AhramOnline.
Arab TV stations showed images of a bus riddled with bullet holes, with many of its windows shattered and bloodstains on the seats. Bodies lay on the ground, covered with black plastic sheets. Children could be heard screaming hysterically in the background.