World

Egypt attacks, blamed on Islamic militants, leave 64 soldiers dead

Islamic State-linked militants struck Egyptian army outposts in the Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday in a coordinated wave of suicide bombings and battles that underlined the government's failure to stem an insurgency despite a two-year crackdown.

Egypt's Islamic State affiliate claims responsibility for wave of deadly attacks in Sinai

The aftermath of an explosion in Six of October district in Cairo is shown on Tuesday. Violence intensified on Wednesday after simultaneous attacks at several checkpoints. (Mostafa el-Shemy/The Associated Press)

Islamic State-linked militants struck Egyptian army outposts in the Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday in a coordinated wave of suicide bombings and battles that underlined the government's failure to stem an insurgency despite a two-year crackdown. Security officials said dozens of troops were killed, along with nearly 100 attackers.

The restive territory's deadliest fighting in decades followed the assassination of Egypt's chief prosecutor and a vow by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to step up the legal battle against Islamic militants.

Later Wednesday, a special forces team raided a Cairo apartment and killed nine fugitive members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, including a former member of parliament, security officials said.

The Brotherhood responded by calling for a rebellion against el-Sissi, saying the nine were "murdered in cold blood."

Authorities and pro-government media have blamed Egypt's recent violence on the Brotherhood, which has been branded a terrorist group, as well as other supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The Brotherhood denies involvement.

The new bloodshed also came as Egypt was marking the second anniversary of the events that led to the July 3, 2013, military-led overthrow of Morsi, although the celebrations were muted by Monday's killing of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat and fears of unrest by the former president's supporters.

Military checkpoints targeted

Militants in northern Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, stepped up their attacks following Morsi's fall. Last year, the main insurgent organization operating in Sinai pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, calling itself Sinai Province.

Ambulances wait in front of the El Arish International hospital because the road to Sheikh Zuweid, where numerous assaults against the army are ongoing, is not safe, in El Arish, north Sinai, Egypt on Wednesday. (Muhamed Sabry/Associated Press)
The coordinated Sinai assault focused on the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints, security officials said. The militants also took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armoured vehicles, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity because regulations did not authorize briefing the media.

Scores of militants besieged Sheikh Zuweid's main police station, shelling it with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and exchanging fire with dozens of police inside in an attack that lasted most of the day, the officials added.

As fighting raged, an Apache helicopter gunship destroyed one of the armoured carriers captured by the militants, they added. Warplanes also roared through the skies.

Death toll disputed

The officials gave a death toll of 64 soldiers, 90 militants and four civilians. It was the biggest battle in the Sinai since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. At least 55 soldiers were wounded, they said.

Other security officials put the number of soldiers killed at more than 50, but did not give a precise figure.

In a statement on state television, the military said 17 soldiers had died, with 13 wounded, while at least 100 "terrorist supporters" had been killed.

The conflicting totals could not immediately be reconciled, and discrepancies are common following such attacks.

First attack of its kind

Smoke rises in Egypt's North Sinai as seen from the border of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt on Wednesday. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
Military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir said that the country's armed forces targeted and destroyed two militant gatherings in northern Sinai.

The territory, characterized by hardscrabble towns, desert and mountainous areas suitable for guerrilla operations, has long been neglected by the government. Local Bedouin tribesmen have grown to resent Cairo, turning to smuggling, organized crime and, in some cases, radical Islam.

The sustained attack -- the first of its kind -- suggested the militants have ambitions to seize an entire city.

The Islamic State affiliate that calls itself Sinai Province claimed its fighters targeted 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two that 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.

Army checkpoints in the area are routinely staffed by 50 to 60 soldiers.

An Associated Press reporter heard two explosions from the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with Gaza and saw smoke rising, though it was not immediately clear what caused the blasts or if they were linked to the militant assault some 40 kilometres away.

Last week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio statement calling for massive attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, now entering its third week.

'Worst we've ever seen'

The planning and coordinated execution of the Sinai attack shows the insurgency in the area is growing stronger, especially since Morsi's ouster and the crackdown on Islamic militants. They have been battling Egyptian security forces in the northern Sinai for more than a decade, despite military reinforcements, strict curfews and the destruction of homes and tunnels along the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza.

The insurgency also poses a serious threat to Egypt's security as the military-backed government struggles to restore stability after years of unrest since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

"This specific attack is by far the worst we've ever seen," said Daniel Nisman, CEO for the Levantine Group risk consultancy. "It's not a hit-and-run -- this is what they used in places like Syria and Iraq to actually capture and hold territory."

Nisman said the attack revealed the weaknesses of the military's "scorched earth" operations in the northern Sinai, which he says have made it difficult for an army that is "very, very overstretched" from multiple missions and struggles to recruit support among the local population.

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