Assailants who attacked a mosque in North Sinai were carrying an Islamic State (IS) group flag, Egyptian officials said yesterday as the state news agency reported the death toll had risen to 305, including 27 children.
The Egyptian military said it has carried out airstrikes and raids overnight against militants held responsible for the killings, the bloodiest attack in Egypt’s modern history.
The attack also left 128 people injured, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported, while Egypt’s public prosecutor’s office linked it IS militants.
“They numbered between 25 and 30, carrying the DAESH flag and took up positions in front of the mosque door and its 12 windows with automatic rifles,” the prosecutor said in a statement, using an Arabic acronym for the extremist group.
The assailants, some wearing masks and military-style uniforms, opened fire inside with automatic rifles, the statement said, citing their investigation and interviews with wounded survivors.
No group has claimed responsibility, but Egyptian forces are battling a stubborn IS affiliate in the region, one of the surviving branches of the militant group after it suffered defeats by US-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.
“The air force has over the past few hours eliminated a number of outposts used by terrorist elements,” the Egyptian army said.
Witnesses said assailants set off a bomb at the end of Friday prayers at Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, west of El-Arish city, and then opened fire as worshipers tried to flee, shooting at ambulances and setting fire to cars to block roads.
Images on state media showed bloodied victims and bodies covered in blankets inside the mosque.
Striking a mosque would be a shift in tactics for the Sinai militants, who have previously attacked troops and police, and more recently tried to spread their insurgency to the mainland by hitting Christian churches and pilgrims.
The massive casualties in the Sinai attack and the targeting of a mosque stunned Egyptians, who have struggled through instability after the 2011 uprising ousted then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the years of protests that followed.
Local sources said some of the worshipers were Sufis, whom groups such as the IS consider targets, because they revere saints and shrines, which for extremists is tantamount to idolatry.
The IS has targeted Sufi and Shiite Muslims in other countries , such as Iraq.
The extremists in Egypt’s Sinai have also attacked local tribes and their militias for working with the Egyptian army and police.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a former armed forces commander who supporters see as a bulwark against Muslim militants, promised the “utmost force” against those responsible for Friday’s attack.
Security has been a key reason for his supporters to back him and he is expected to run for re-election next year.
“What is happening is an attempt to stop us from our efforts in the fight against terrorism,” he said on Friday.
North Sinai, a mostly desert area that stretches from the Suez Canal eastward to the Gaza Strip and Israel, has long been a security headache for Egypt and is a strategic region for Cairo because of its sensitive borders.
Local militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, once allied to al-Qaeda, split from it and declared allegiance to the IS in 2014.
However, attacks in the Sinai worsened after 2013, when al-Sisi led the overthrow of then-Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood after mass protests against his rule.
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