EL-ARISH: 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.
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.
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 armored 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 armored carriers captured by the militants, they added. Warplanes also roared through the skies.
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.
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 50-60 soldiers.