Egypt raises Sinai attack death toll
El-Arish, Egypt — Egyptian officials on Friday raised the death toll to 32 from coordinated and simultaneous attacks that struck more than a dozen army and police targets in the restive Sinai Peninsula the previous night.
An Egyptian militant group affiliated with the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, which involved locations in three Sinai towns, and required a previously unseen level of coordination.
At least one suicide car bomber was set off outside a military base, while mortars were simultaneously fired at the base, toppling some buildings and leaving soldiers buried under the debris, officials said.
Among the dead were at least 25 soldiers and a policeman. Health Ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said two civilians were also among those killed. A list of slain troops was released, showing three senior officers and saying there were also unidentified bodies and body parts.
At least 60 people were wounded, some critically, health officials said, adding that the death toll was expected to rise.
An Egyptian army spokesman blamed former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood for orchestrating the attack.
Following the attack, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi cut short a trip to Ethiopia to return to Cairo, the state MENA news agency reported Friday.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed U.S. condemnation of the attacks, adding that the “United States remains steadfast in its support of the Egyptian government’s efforts to combat the threat of terrorism in Egypt.”
The Islamic State affiliate, which claimed the attack, said on its Twitter account that two suicide bombers and three car bombs targeted the army base and an adjacent security building in the provincial capital of el-Arish.
The posting called the attack “an extensive, simultaneous offensive for the soldiers of the caliphate” and listed at least eight checkpoints that were also targeted in the three locations — el-Arish, the nearby town of Sheik Zuwayid and the town of Rafah bordering Gaza.
Along with the military base, the other attacks included mortar rounds fired at a hotel, a police club and more than a dozen checkpoints, officials said.
Hours before the attack, the militant group posted on its official Twitter account pictures of masked militants dressed in black. They were carrying rocket-propelled grenades in a show of force, while flying the Islamic State black flag.
The group, previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has launched several attacks against police and the army in Sinai in recent years. It was initially inspired by al-Qaida, but last year, it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.
In November, it changed its name to Sinai Province, or Waliyat Sinai, reflecting its loyalty and subordination to the Islamic State, which has captured a third of both Syria and Iraq.
Ahmed Samir, the army spokesman who blamed the Brotherhood, said in a posting on his official Facebook page that the attack was in response to “successful strikes” by army and police against terrorist elements in Sinai. He said that security forces are exchanging gunfire with the militants.
The explosions smashed windows and shook residential areas in el-Arish and caused a power outage across the city.
El-Sissi, the army chief-turned-president who led the ouster of Morsi, has been depicted by nationalist media as the rescuer of Egypt from Islamic militancy. He led a wide crackdown on the Brotherhood, whose supporters had staged near daily demonstrations demanding Morsi’s reinstatement, imprisoning thousands and killing hundreds in street protests.
In apparent retaliation, militants have launched a spate of attacks that ranged from homemade explosive devices to suicide attacks.
Thursday’s attacks are expected to cause a great deal of embarrassment to the government and military after nearly a yearlong offensive in Sinai aimed at uprooting Islamic militants.
The areas where the attacks took place have been under a state of emergency and a curfew since last October, when militants killed 31 soldiers in an attack on a checkpoint in Sinai, the deadliest for the military in recent history.
The Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for that attack in a video posting that showed militants spraying soldiers with bullets and vowing more attacks.
In an attempt to stop weapons smuggling to and from the Gaza Strip, authorities demolished houses and residential buildings located within 500 yards of the border, where a complex network of tunnels had long been used to bring consumer goods, as well as weapons and fighters, to and from the Palestinian territory.
Sinai-based militants have exploited long-held grievances in the impoverished north of the peninsula, where the mainly Bedouin population has complained of neglect by Cairo authorities and where few have benefited from the famed tourist resorts in the more peaceful southern part of Sinai.
The police in northern Sinai largely fled during the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, as militants attacked their stations and killed scores of security forces.
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