23 Egyp­tians killed in at­tack

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - ASHRAF SWEILAM AND MAG­GIE MICHAEL

EL-AR­ISH, Egypt — Is­lamic mil­i­tants in Egypt’s Si­nai Penin­sula un­leashed a sui­cide car bomb and dozens of masked and heav­ily armed gun­men who de­scended in mul­ti­ple SUVs on a re­mote se­cu­rity out­post Fri­day, killing at least 23 sol­diers and wound­ing 33, of­fi­cials said.

The at­tack was the dead­li­est in the past two years in Si­nai. The Is­lamic State mil­i­tant group, also known as ISIS, is­sued a claim of re­spon­si­bil­ity af­ter night­fall, say­ing in an on­line state­ment that it had car­ried out the at­tack as the Egyp­tian army was pre­par­ing an as­sault on its po­si­tions in Si­nai.

Egypt has for years bat­tled mil­i­tants in Si­nai, where the ji­hadis have ex­ploited the vast arid and un­der­de­vel­oped re­gion and its Be­douin pop­u­la­tion as an ideal in­cu­ba­tor for Is­lamic in­sur­gency, but more re­cently, the Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate had emerged at the fore­front of the in­sur­gency.

Fri­day’s at­tack be­gan in the early morn­ing, when a sui­cide bomber rammed his ve­hi­cle into a check­point at a mil­i­tary com­pound in the vil­lage of elBarth, south­west of the bor­der town of Rafah.

That was fol­lowed by dozens of masked mil­i­tants who bore down 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 a half-hour, the of­fi­cials added, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity un­der reg­u­la­tions. The troops at the com­pound were es­ti­mated to have num­bered about 60.

When the at­tack sub­sided, the mil­i­tants ap­par­ently looted the check­point, snatch­ing weapons and am­mu­ni­tion be­fore flee­ing the scene, the of­fi­cials said. It was un­clear whether they also took ar­mored ve­hi­cles. A num­ber of mil­i­tants were killed in the shootout, in­di­cat­ing that the sol­diers had fought back, and some of their ve­hi­cles were left at the scene, aban­doned.

The sui­cide blast at the start of the at­tack likely dis­abled the check­point’s mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem, prompt­ing an of­fi­cer to use his 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 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 spokesman Heather Nauert said the United States strongly con­demns the Si­nai at­tack and con­tin­ues “to stand with Egypt as it con­fronts ter­ror­ism.”

Ear­lier, Egyp­tian army spokesman Tamer el-Ri­fai con­firmed the at­tack on his 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. Si­nai res­i­dents, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity for fear of their safety, said they saw Apache he­li­copters car­ry­ing out airstrikes across Rafah af­ter the at­tack. On his page, el-Ri­fai posted pho­to­graphs of al­legedly slain mil­i­tants, dressed in mil­i­tary uni­forms, typ­i­cally worn by Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists.

The at­tacked check­point was set up two months ago to sever a key mil­i­tant sup­ply line be­tween the out­skirts of the town of Rafah, where en­tire neigh­bor­hoods are known to have a heavy Is­lamic State 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.

De­spite the rag­ing in­sur­gency, the Is­lamic State 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.

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