At least 300 people have been killed and scores more injured in a devastating bomb and gun assault on a mosque in Egypt’s north Sinai.
The attack was one of the deadliest in the country in recent memory, marking a major escalation in Cairo’s battle with regional insurgents. The death toll, reported by state media, rose repeatedly on Friday afternoon as more details emerged.
More than 50 ambulances ferried casualties from al-Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, west of Arish city, to nearby hospitals. At least 125 people were injured.
A bomb ripped through the mosque as Friday prayers were finishing, then militants in four off-road vehicles approached and opened fire on worshippers, a military source told the Guardian.
No group claimed responsibility for the assault, but it was the deadliest yet in a region where, for the last three years, Egyptian security forces have battled an Islamic State insurgency that has killed hundreds of police and soldiers.
One eyewitness, a shop owner from Bir Al-Abed, said locals heard a massive blast followed by gunfire. When he arrive at the site of the attack he saw locals rushing to pick up the bodies and to offer help to the injured. He said he saw at least 20 bodies wrapped in cloth.
One resident whose relatives were at the scene told Reuters that the attackers shot at people as they left the mosque, and also at the ambulances.
The mosque belongs to a Sufi order – a mystical branch of Islam whose followers are regarded by hardline Islamists as apostates because they revere saints and shrines.
The attack came days before the annual celebrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, which is celebrated by Muslims in Egypt. Festivals are being held by Sufi-affiliated mosques around the country.
President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, a former armed forces commander who presents himself as a bulwark against Islamist militants in the region, convened an emergency security meeting after the attack.
Militant attacks have mostly targeted security forces since bloodshed in the Sinai worsened after Sisi led the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.
But jihadis have also targeted Sinai tribes that are working with the armed forces, branding them traitors for their cooperation.
In July, at least 23 soldiers were killed when suicide car bombs hit two military checkpoints in the Sinai, an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Militants have tried to expand beyond the largely barren, desert Sinai Peninsula into Egypt’s heavily populated mainland, attacking Coptic Christian churches and pilgrims.
In May, gunmen attacked a Coptic group travelling to a monastery in southern Egypt, killing 29.
The grand imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, the centre of Sunni learning, condemned the attack as an “attempt to spread chaos.”
“After targeting Christians, the turn for mosques have come,” he said in a statement. “As if terrorism wants to unite Egyptians in deaths and chaos, nevertheless it will be defeated, and the will of Egyptians will prevail.” (Guardian)