An Egyptian military helicopter flies over debris from a Russian airliner which crashed at the Hassana area in Arish city, north Egypt, November 1, 2015. .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt's military said on Saturday it had carried out air strikes and raids overnight against militants held responsible for killing at least 305 worshipers at a mosque in North Sinai.
The bloodiest attack in Egypt's modern history, in which militants gunned down worshipers, brought condemnation from leaders from Washington to Moscow, while President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared three days of mourning in the shocked nation.
The dead included 27 children, and 128 more people were wounded at Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, west of El-Arish, MENA, the state news agency, said.
No group has claimed responsibility, but Egyptian forces are battling an Islamic State affiliate in the region, one of the surviving branches of the group, after it suffered defeats by US-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.
The Egyptian public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Saturday that the terrorists were carrying an Islamic State flag and were between 25 and 30 in number. The gunmen, some wearing masks and military-style uniforms, surrounded the mosque blocking windows and a doorway and opened fire inside with automatic rifles, according to the statement, which cited their investigation and interviews with wounded survivors.
State media showed images of bloodied victims and bodies covered in blankets inside the mosque.
Worshipers were finishing Friday prayers when a bomb exploded, witnesses said.
Around 40 gunmen set up positions outside the mosque with jeeps and opened fire from different directions as people tried to escape.
“Four groups of armed men attacked the worshipers inside the mosque after Friday noon prayers. Two groups were firing at ambulances to deter them,” said Muhammad, a witness.
Egypt later said it would delay the opening of the Rafah border crossing to Gaza after the attack due to security concerns. The crossing had been due to open for three days, beginning on Saturday.
Striking at a mosque would be a change in tactics for the Sinai terrorists, who have usually attacked troops and police and Christian churches.
Arabiya news channel and some local sources said some of the worshipers were Sufis, whom groups such as Islamic State consider targets because they revere saints and shrines, which for Islamists is tantamount to idolatry.
The jihadists have also attacked local tribes and their militias for working with the army and police, branding them traitors.
The Sinai branch is one of Islamic State’s surviving branches following the collapse of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq after military defeats by US-backed forces.
Sisi, a former armed forces commander who presents himself as a bulwark against Islamist militancy, convened an emergency meeting with his defense and interior ministers and intelligence chief soon after the attack.
Security has long been one of the key sources of public support for the former general, who is expected to run for reelection early next year for another four-year term.
US President Donald Trump, in a post on Twitter on Friday, called the assault a “horrible and cowardly terrorist attack.”
“The world cannot tolerate terrorism, we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence,” he added.
Sinai has been the scene of increasingly deadly attacks as security forces fight against terrorist networks associated with an ISIS-affiliate.
The ISIS-affiliate in Sinai previously went by the name Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and is now called Wilayat Sinai. Its roots lie in previous extremist groups, including al-Qaida, that have been involved in terrorist attacks for a decade, especially in North Sinai.
On November 20, an Israeli soldier was wounded in spillover violence from Sinai.
Terrorist attacks in Sinai have also become more deadly and complex in the last year. On July 7, ISIS members attacked an Egyptian security checkpoint in el-Barth in North Sinai, killing as many as 23 soldiers.
On September 18, members of the security forces were killed during an attack on a convoy passing from El-Arish to Qantara near the village of Toloul. On October 24, two attacks killed as many as 33 Egyptian security personnel, according to Reuters. One of those attacks was near El-Arish.
Sisi sees the struggle against terrorism in Sinai as essential to Egypt’s security. When he spoke at the National Police Day in January 2016, he honored a woman whose husband had died in Sinai.
Along with the terrorism threat Cairo faces from the Libyan border, Sinai is the country’s foremost security challenge.