23 Egyptians killed in attack
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.