Egypt attacks terrorist bases in Libya after ambush kills 28 Coptic Christians
CAIRO — Masked gunmen ambushed a bus carrying Coptic Christians to a monastery south of Cairo on Friday, killing at least 28 people, and Egypt responded by launching airstrikes against what it said were militant training bases in Libya.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi announced the retaliatory action hours after the bus was riddled with machine-gun fire on a remote desert road by suspected Islamic State militants in three SUVs.
“What you’ve seen today will not go unpunished. An extremely painful strike has been dealt to the bases. Egypt will never hesitate to strike terror bases anywhere,” el-Sissi said in a televised address to the nation.
The ambush was the fourth deadly attack against the country’s Christians since December. The dead included two little girls, ages two and four. Twenty-two others were reported wounded.
El-Sissi also appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to lead the global war against terror. Trump, in Italy on his first trip abroad as president, blamed the bloodshed on a “thuggish ideology” and said it should bring nations together to crush “evil organizations of terror.”
Senior Egyptian officials said fighter jets targeted bases in eastern Libya of the Shura Council, an Islamist militia known to be linked to al-Qaida, not the IS. There was no word on damage or casualties.
The bus attack deepens the woes of the majority-Muslim nation, where El-Sissi’s government is struggling not only to crush a burgeoning Islamic insurgency, but to revive the battered economy.
The country’s Christians have complained that the government is not doing enough to protect them from Islamic extremists, and hundreds of them reacted to the bus attack by staging angry street protests in two provincial cities, destroying at least six cars and briefly cutting off railway lines.
“Either we get retribution or die like them,” some chanted.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the ambush, which came on the eve of the start of the Muslim holy month, Ramadan.
But it bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State, which has been spearheading an insurgency that has carried out deadly attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and, increasingly, on the country’s mainland.
The Interior Ministry said the assailants opened fire as the bus travelled to the St. Samuel the Confessor monastery in Maghagha, about 220 kilometres south of Cairo. The Coptic Orthodox monastery is reachable only by an unpaved route that veers off the main highway.
Security and medical officials quoted witnesses as saying they saw eight to 10 attackers in military uniforms. They said one of the assailants’ SUVs got stuck in the sand, so they torched it and hijacked a truck travelling the same road, killing its occupants.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters, said the death toll stood at 28 and could rise.
El-Sissi’s government is in the midst of an ambitious and politically sensitive reform program to resuscitate the economy. The program has sent the cost of food and services soaring, feeding popular discontent. A new wave of increases for fuel and electricity is expected this summer.
After an April visit to Egypt by Pope Francis, the IS vowed to escalate attacks against Christians and urged Muslims to steer clear of Christian gatherings and Western embassies.
Wednesday, Egypt blocked access to nearly two dozen websites it said were sympathetic to militants or spreading their ideology.
Egypt’s Copts, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, account for about 10 per cent of the country’s 93 million people. They rallied behind el-Sissi in 2013 when he ousted his Islamist predecessor Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood. Attacks on Christian homes, businesses and churches subsequently surged.
Relatives of slain Coptic Christians grieve during a funeral at Abu Garnous Cathedral in Minya, Egypt, on Friday. Dozens of people were killed and wounded in Friday’s attack.