Islamic militants on Wednesday unleashed a wave of simultaneous attacks, including suicide car bombings, on Egyptian army checkpoints in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 50 soldiers, security and military officials said.
The coordinated morning assaults in Sinai came a day after Egypt’s president pledged to step up the battle against Islamic militants and two days after the country’s state prosecutor was assassinated in the capital, Cairo.
The scope and intensity of the attacks underscored the resilience and advanced planning by the militants who have for years battled Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai but intensified their insurgency over the past two years just as the government threw more resources into the drawn-out fight.
The Islamic State-linked Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terror group claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks, saying its fighters targeted a total of 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two of which 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.
Except for the attack at the officers’ club, the rest took place in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints, the officials said. The militants also took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armored vehicles, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
At least 55 other soldiers were wounded, the officials said. As fighting raged, an army Apache gunship destroyed one of the armored carriers captured by the militants as they were driving it away, the officials added.
Egypt’s military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir, said fighting was still underway in the area between the armed forces and the militants.
Officials said scores of militants were besieging Sheikh Zuweid’s main police station, shelling it with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and exchanging fire with dozens of policemen inside. A source in the city rebuffed reports that the town had fallen to the jihadists, Daily News Egypt reported, saying that only the police station was under siege.
Samir’s statement put the number of soldiers killed so far at 10, but the conflicting numbers could not immediately be reconciled in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
A reporter for Sky News Arabia put the Egyptian army death toll as high as 60.
Samir’s statement, posted on his official Facebook page, said some 70 militants attacked five checkpoints in northern Sinai and that Egyptian troops killed 22 of them and destroyed three all-terrain vehicles fitted with antiaircraft guns.
Northern Sinai has over the past two years witnessed a series of complex and successful attacks targeting Egyptian security forces, many of which have been claimed by Ansar, a local affiliate of the Islamic State group which now calls itself the Province of Sinai.
Though the group recently swore allegiance to the Islamic State, analysts say the link between the two groups is weak and was mostly made to raise the Sinai organization’s cache.
The officials said the attackers on Wednesday used mortars, rocket propelled grenades as well as assault rifles. Two of the checkpoints, which were apparently located in close proximity, were completely destroyed.
The attacks come just two days after the assassination in Cairo of the country’s top prosecutor Hisham Barakat. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed on Tuesday to step up a two-year crackdown on militants.