El-Arish, Egypt — Islamic militants on Monday staged a two-pronged assault in the heart of the largest city in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, lobbing grenades and trading gunfire with guards at an unused Coptic church to distract from a bank robbery across the street.
By the time the attack was over, seven people were killed, including a child, and 17 million Egyptian pounds (about $1 million) were reportedly stolen.
The assault came a day after the Islamic State group attacked military checkpoints in a nearby town, killing nine soldiers. The attacks underscored the extremists’ ability to carry out spectacular assaults despite Egypt’s all-out efforts to contain the long-running insurgency in Sinai.
Monday’s attack unfolded when about two dozen militants drove into the center of the coastal city of el-Arish in the morning, then split into two groups, according to Egyptian security officials. One group exchanged gunfire with the guards outside an unused church.
The church assault appeared to be a distraction from the bank heist. The second group of militants shot and killed the bank guards, then stormed in and emptied the safe before fleeing the scene two hours later. Three civilians, including a child, three guards and a soldier were left dead and a total of 15 people were wounded. Women and children were among the wounded, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.
The attackers were caught on camera while fleeing from the scene in a stolen pickup and three motorcycles.
“They looted the entire bank and left explosive devices inside,” a senior security official said. Egypt’s state news agency MENA confirmed that three policemen were killed in an armed attack on the bank in el-Arish.
Though no group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault, it bore all the hallmarks of the Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate, which is leading the insurgency in Sinai.
The timing and the location of Monday’s attack — a busy commercial street in the heart of el-Arish — reflected the confidence of the militants. It also shows the Egyptian forces’ effort to rein in the militants has left them short of cash when IS is fast losing the territories it seized in 2013 and 2014 in Iraq and Syria.
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