23 Egyp­tian sol­diers killed in dead­li­est Si­nai at­tack in years

23 sol­diers per­ish in dead­li­est at­tack

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The Is­lamic State group claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for at­tack­ing a re­mote Egyp­tian army out­post in the Si­nai Penin­sula with a sui­cide car bomb and heavy ma­chine gun fire. The as­sault killed at least 23 sol­diers in the dead­li­est at­tack in the tur­bu­lent re­gion in two years. The IS made the claim af­ter night­fall Fri­day, say­ing in an on­line state­ment that it had car­ried out the at­tack as the Egyp­tian army was pre­par­ing an as­sault on IS po­si­tions in Si­nai.

The co­or­di­nated at­tack sug­gested the Si­nai-based mil­i­tants are among the re­gion’s most re­silient, af­ter IS in Iraq and Syria, where the so-called caliphate is now wit­ness­ing its demise. And it un­der­scored the strug­gles Egyp­tian forces face in try­ing to rein in the in­sur­gency. Egypt has for years bat­tled mil­i­tants in Si­nai, where the ji­hadis have ex­ploited the vast arid and un­der­de­vel­oped re­gion and its dis­grun­tled Be­douin pop­u­la­tion as an ideal in­cu­ba­tor for Is­lamic mil­i­tancy even be­fore the IS af­fil­i­ate has emerged at the fore­front of the in­sur­gency.

Fri­day’s as­sault be­gan in the early morn­ing, when a sui­cide bomber rammed his ve­hi­cle into a check­point at a mil­i­tary com­pound in the vil­lage of el-Barth, south­west of the bor­der town of Rafah. Dozens of masked mil­i­tants then de­scended on the site in 24 Land Cruiser SUVs and opened fire on the sol­diers with ma­chine guns, ac­cord­ing to se­cu­rity of­fi­cials. The shoot­ing lasted nearly half an hour, the of­fi­cials added, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of reg­u­la­tions. The troops at the com­pound were es­ti­mated to have num­bered about 60.

Au­dio mes­sage

When the at­tack sub­sided, the mil­i­tants ap­par­ently looted the check­point, snatch­ing weapons and am­mu­ni­tion be­fore flee­ing, the of­fi­cials said. A num­ber of mil­i­tants were killed in the shootout, in­di­cat­ing the sol­diers had fought back, and some of their ve­hi­cles were aban­doned at the scene. The sui­cide blast at the start of the at­tack likely dis­abled the check­point’s mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem, prompt­ing one of the of­fi­cers to use his own cell­phone to record an au­dio mes­sage and send it to a col­league via What­sApp, seek­ing help and ask­ing for prayers.

The mes­sage was later widely cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia. “This might be the last sec­onds in my life,” a man’s voice calmly says in the record­ing. “Quickly, oh men, any­one who knows how to reach the com­mand cen­ter, no­tify them to use ar­tillery as we are still alive.” He then praises God and ends by say­ing “we will ei­ther avenge them or die,” re­fer­ring to his fallen col­leagues.

In Wash­ing­ton, State De­part­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert said the United States strongly con­demns the Si­nai at­tack and con­tin­ues “to stand with Egypt as it con­fronts terrorism.” The se­cu­rity of­fi­cials ini­tially put the death toll at 10 but later told The Associated Press that more bodies were pulled from un­der the rub­ble of a nearby build­ing that was used as a rest house for troops.

Ac­cord­ing to the IS state­ment, a second car bomber was used in the at­tack to strike an army con­voy sent as a re­in­force­ment to the em­bat­tled sol­diers. The au­then­tic­ity of the IS claim could not be ver­i­fied but it was cir­cu­lated by IS sup­port­ers on­line and by the US-based SITE In­tel­li­gence Group, which mon­i­tors ji­hadi web­sites.

Ear­lier, Egyp­tian army spokesman Tamer El-Ri­fai con­firmed the at­tack on his of­fi­cial Face­book page, say­ing that 26 army per­son­nel were killed or wounded. He didn’t pro­vide a break­down.

He said the army on Fri­day foiled at­tacks that tar­geted a num­ber of other check­points in the Rafah area and that 40 mil­i­tants were killed. Lo­cal Si­nai res­i­dents, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity for fear for their safety, said they saw Apache helicopters car­ry­ing out airstrikes across Rafah af­ter the at­tack. On his page, Al-Ri­fai posted pho­to­graphs of al­legedly slain mil­i­tants, dressed in mil­i­tary uni­forms, typ­i­cally worn by IS ex­trem­ists. The De­fense Min­istry posted a video on its of­fi­cial web­site show­ing air­craft tak­ing off and strik­ing ve­hi­cles and po­si­tions al­legedly be­long­ing to the mil­i­tants who car­ried out Fri­day’s at­tack.

The at­tacked check­point was set up two months ago to cut a key mil­i­tant sup­ply line be­tween the out­skirts of Rafah, where the district is known to have a heavy IS pres­ence, and cen­tral Si­nai, where mil­i­tants have found safe havens in the moun­tains, ac­cord­ing to tribal leader Has­san Kha­laf of the Swaraka, one of Si­nai’s largest tribes. The se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said some se­nior of­fi­cers had ex­pressed op­po­si­tion to the lo­ca­tion of the check­point, ar­gu­ing that it provided no real cover for the troops. The near­est army com­pound was an hour’s drive away, leav­ing the check­point with only the sup­port of lo­cal armed tribes­men from the Tarabeen, with their own small check­points nearby.

The area was also the site of fierce bat­tles in the spring be­tween the tribes­men and mil­i­tants. De­spite the in­sur­gency, IS has so far not suc­ceeded in seiz­ing ter­ri­tory in Si­nai but main­tains a strong pres­ence in the western and south­ern ar­eas of Rafah, on the out­skirts of the town of Sheikh Zuweid, and even in­side the res­i­den­tial ar­eas of Si­nai’s largest city, El-Arish. Over the past months, IS has fo­cused its at­tacks on Egypt’s Chris­tian mi­nor­ity and car­ried out at least four deadly at­tacks that killed dozens, prompt­ing army chief-turned-Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fat­tah el Sissi to declare a state of emer­gency in the coun­try.

The restive north­ern Si­nai has been un­der a state of emer­gency since Oc­to­ber 2014, af­ter Is­lamic mil­i­tants killed more than 30 sol­diers in a sin­gle at­tack. There was a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in at­tacks this year in Si­nai, with the one ma­jor as­sault killing eight po­lice­men in el-Arish in Jan­uary. On July 1, 2015, IS car­ried se­ries of at­tacks, killing over 50 sol­diers in Si­nai. IS said at the time that it at­tacked some 15 army and po­lice po­si­tions and staged three sui­cide bomb­ings.

How­ever, the army de­nied the high death toll. The Si­nai at­tack came as the Is­lamic State group is fast los­ing its once vast ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq. The group’s off­shoot in Libya has been up­rooted in months-long bat­tles in the cen­tral city of Sirte, while its branch in Ye­men has failed to seize ter­ri­to­ries or com­pete with its Al-Qaeda ri­vals.

Faced with the chal­lenge in Si­nai, the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment has ac­cused sev­eral Arab and Mus­lim coun­tries of fi­nanc­ing and pro­vid­ing safe haven to Is­lamic mil­i­tants in­clud­ing Qatar, Turkey, and the Ha­mas group in neigh­bor­ing Gaza Strip. Ha­mas, which is seek­ing to im­prove re­la­tions with Cairo, quickly con­demned Fri­day’s at­tack. “We con­sid­ers it a crim­i­nal, ter­ror­ist, and cow­ardly at­tack that doesn’t tar­get Egypt only, but the se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity of the en­tire Arab na­tion,” Ha­mas’ spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

—AFP

ALEPPO: Dis­placed Syr­i­ans who fled with their fam­i­lies Is­lamic State con­trolled ar­eas in Raqa, Deir Ez­zor and Mayadeen gather at Aleppo’s bus sta­tion of Ra­mussa.

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