ISIL attacks kill dozens in Egypt's Sinai
CAIRO - Agence France-Presse
REUTERS photoDozens of people were killed July 1 in a wave of unprecedented attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group on Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula, in a major challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
F-16 warplanes bombarded the militants as they fought security forces on the streets of the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid after striking military checkpoints in a surprise attack after dawn.
Medical and security officials said at least 70 people, mostly soldiers, were killed in the attacks and hours of clashes, along with dozens of jihadists.
The military said 17 soldiers and 100 militants had been killed. It was not immediately possible to explain the discrepancy.
The militants withdrew from Sheikh Zuweid after almost eight hours of fighting, the officials said.
The violence came two days after state prosecutor Hisham Barakat was assassinated in a Cairo car bombing, the most senior government official killed in the jihadist insurgency.
Also on July 1, Egypt's government adopted a controversial anti-terror law put forward after his killing that imposes harsher punishments on convicted terrorists and aims to target their sources of financing.
In the capital, police killed senior Muslim Brotherhood member Nasser al-Houfi and eight others during a raid on an apartment, security officials and a member of the Islamist movement said.
The Sinai attacks were the most brazen in their scope since jihadists launched an insurgency in 2013 following the army's overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
Militants took over rooftops and fired rocket-propelled grenades at a police station in Sheikh Zuweid after mining its exits to block reinforcements, a police colonel said.
"This is war," a senior military officer told AFP. "It's unprecedented, in the number of terrorists involved and the type of weapons they are using."
One car bomb attack against a checkpoint south of Sheikh Zuweid killed 15 soldiers.
F-16 jets responded by striking the militants in several locations, said officials and a witness, who added: "There are gunmen on the streets. They have planted mines everywhere."
Explosions were heard and plumes of smoke seen over Sheikh Zuweid from the neighbouring Gaza Strip, witnesses there said.
The ISIL group said its jihadists surrounded the police station after launching attacks on 15 checkpoints and security installations using suicide car bombers and rockets.
Troops regularly come under attack in the Sinai, where jihadists have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers since Morsi's overthrow.
ISIL said the assault had involved three suicide bombers. "In a blessed raid enabled by God, the lions of the caliphate have simultaneously attacked more than 15 checkpoints belonging to the apostate army," it said in a statement.
Warplanes resumed strikes against ISIL positions into the early hours of July 2, security officials said.
In Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip, a 19-year-old was killed when a stray rocket hit his home during clashes between the military and jihadists.
Egypt responded to its growing insurgency on July 1 by passing controversial anti-terror law and requesting the appeals process be shortened, in measures it said would "achieve swift justice and revenge for our martyrs".
Sisi, the former army chief who toppled Morsi before winning elections last year pledging to wipe out militants, pledged to toughen laws and suggested fast-track executions following the state prosecutor's assassination.
The government designated Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood a "terrorist group" in December 2013 as part of a crackdown on the opposition that has left hundreds of his supporters dead and thousands in jail.
Courts have sentenced hundreds to death, including Morsi, who was convicted of involvement in attacks on police stations. His sentence is being appealed.
The government often blames the Brotherhood for attacks, but the deadliest have been claimed by the ISIL affiliate in Sinai.
Wednesday's attack was similar to a series of ambushes on April 2 in which dozens of militants attacked checkpoints, killing 15 soldiers.
In January, a rocket and car bomb attack on a military base, police headquarters and residential complex for troops and police killed at least 24 people, most of them soldiers.
The attacks have come despite stringent security measures in the Sinai, including a night-time curfew and the creation of a buffer zone along the Gaza border.
The dominant jihadist group in the Sinai, previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, pledged allegiance to ISIL in November.
The militants have mostly focused their attacks on soldiers and police, killing hundreds since Morsi's overthrow.
They previously said they avoided targeting civilians but claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on a tourist coach in February 2014 that killed three South Koreans and their driver.