Militants launch attacks on Egyptian army checkpoints in Sinai
Islamic militants on Wednesday unleashed a wave of simultaneous attacks, including suicide car bombings, on Egyptian army checkpoints in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 50 soldiers, security and military officials said.
The co-ordinated morning assaults in Sinai came a day after Egypt’s president pledged to step up the battle against Islamic militants and two days after the country’s state prosecutor was assassinated in the capital, Cairo. The attacks set off fierce fighting between the army and the militants that continued into Wednesday afternoon — the fiercest clashes in decades in the peninsula.
The scope and intensity of the attacks underscored the resilience and advanced planning by the militants who have for years battled Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai but intensified their insurgency over the past two years just as the government threw more resources into the drawn-out fight.
An Islamic State affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks, saying its fighters targeted a total of 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two of which targeted checkpoints and one that hit an officers’ club in the nearby city of el-Arish.
The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified but it was posted on a Facebook page associated with the group.
Except for the attack at the officers’ club, the rest took place in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints, the officials said. The militants also took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armoured vehicles, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
At least 55 soldiers were wounded, the officials also said. As fighting raged, an army Apache gunship destroyed one of the armoured carriers captured by the militants as they were driving it away, the officials added.
Egypt’s military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir, said clashes were still underway in the area between the armed forces and the militants. His statement put the number of soldiers killed so far at 10, but the conflicting numbers could not immediately be reconciled in the immediate aftermath of a major attack.
Samir’s statement, posted on his official Facebook page, said some 70 militants attacked five checkpoints in northern Sinai and that Egyptian troops killed 22 of them and destroyed three allterrain vehicles fitted with antiaircraft guns.
Later Wednesday, Samir said on his Facebook page that the country’s armed forces targeted two militant gatherings in northern Sinai, completely destroying them.
The Egyptian air force is “targeting terrorists on the ground as clashes continue,’’ he said, though he did not give a new figure for militant casualties.
The officials said scores of militants were besieging Sheikh Zuweid’s main police station, shelling it with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and exchanging fire with dozens of policemen inside.
An Egyptian soldier watches from a post in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula, as seen from the Israel-Egypt border, in Kerem Shalom town, southern Israel, Wednesday.