Mosque attack in Egypt’s Sinai ‘kills more than 200’
Gunmen attacked a packed mosque in Egypt’s restive North Sinai province on Friday and set off a bomb, killing at least 235 people in the country’s deadliest attack in recent memory.
A bomb explosion ripped through the Rawda mosque roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said.
State television reported at least 235 people were killed and over a hundred wounded in the attack, which is unprecedented in a four-year insurgency by Islamist extremist groups.
The victims included civilians and conscripts praying at the mosque.
According to three local police officers that AP spoke to, the militants opened fire from four off-road vehicles on worshippers inside the mosque during the sermon, blocking off escape routes from the area by blowing up cars and leaving the burning wrecks blocking the roads.
No one claimed responsibility immediately following the attack, but the Islamic State (IS) group’s Egypt branch has targeted Sufis several times in the area in the past and has been waging a stepped-up campaign of violence against them. It has claimed deadly bombings on churches in the capital, Cairo, and other cities, killing dozens of Christians. It’s also believed to have been behind the 2016 downing of a Russian passenger jet that killed 226.
But this was the first major militant attack on a Muslim mosque and the startling bloodshed eclipsed any past attacks of its kind, even dating back to a previous Islamic militant insurgency in the 1990s.
Images circulating on social media showed dozens of bloodied bodies wrapped up in sheets laid across the mosque floor, while others revealed dozens of relatives queuing up outside the hospital as ambulances raced back and forth.
Resident Ashraf el-Hefny said many of the victims were workers at a nearby salt firm who had come for Friday services at the mosque, which had contained some 300 worshipers.
“Local people brought the wounded to hospital on their own cars and trucks,” he said.
Egypt to respond with ‘brutal force’
In a televised speech later Friday, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-day mourning period for the victims and pledged to respond with “brutal force” against the militants behind the massacre.
“The army and police will avenge our martyrs and return security and stability with force in the coming short period,” he added.
FRANCE 24’s Foreign Affairs Editor Robert Parsons said that the Sufis have become an increasingly targeted group in Egypt after the rise of the IS group.
“The Salafists, which the Islamic State (IS) group in Sinai province [belong to], consider Sufis to be heretics, and as far as they’re concerned, [they’re] fair game for any sort of attack,” he said. “In addition to that, the Sufi movement in Egypt has been sympathetic towards the government, including to the current [President Abdel Fattah al] Sisi’s government. It is thought – although there has been no confirmation of this – that there were a number of people sympathetic to the government attending prayers at this particular mosque that was attacked. So that may have been a motivation as well.
The IS group shares the puritan Salafi view of Sufis as heretics for seeking the intercession of saints.
The jihadists had previously kidnapped and beheaded an elderly Sufi leader, accusing him of practising magic, which Islam forbids, and abducted Sufi practitioners later released after “repenting”.
The group has killed more than 100 Christians in church bombings and shootings in Sinai and other parts of Egypt, forcing many to flee the peninsula.
The military has struggled to quell the jihadists who pledged allegiance to the IS group in November 2014.
The jihadists have since increasingly turned to civilian targets, attacking not only Christians and Sufis but also Bedouin Sinai inhabitants accused of working with the army.
State condolences poured in for Egypt, including messages from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the US, Russia, France and Britain condemning the violence.
US President Donald Trump on Twitter denounced what he called a “horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenseless worshipers (sic) in Egypt”.
“The world cannot tolerate terrorism,” he wrote, adding that “we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!”.
Aside from the IS group, Egypt also faces a threat from Al Qaeda-aligned jihadists who operate out of neighbouring Libya.
A group calling itself Ansar al-Islam – Supporters of Islam in Arabic – claimed an October ambush in Egypt’s Western Desert that killed at least 16 policemen.
Many of those killed belonged to the interior ministry’s secretive National Security Service.
The military later conducted air strikes on the attackers, killing their leader Emad al-Din Abdel Hamid, a most wanted jihadist who was a military officer before joining an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Libya’s militant stronghold of Derna.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)