Death toll in Egypt mosque attack rises to more than 300
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Gunmen attacked a packed mosque in Egypt's restive North Sinai province on Friday and set off a bomb, killing at least 305 people in the country's deadliest attack in recent memory.
According to officials, the militants opened fire from four off-road vehicles on Sufi worshippers during a Friday sermon in the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, blocking off escape routes from the area by blowing up cars and leaving the burning wrecks blocking the roads.
In a statement on Saturday, Egypt's chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, said the attack killed 305 people, including 27 children, and left 128 people wounded.
State television had reported Friday that 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.
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 beenwaging a stepped-up campaign of violence against them. The IS group shares the puritan Salafi view of Sufis as heretics for seeking the intercession of saints. The jihadists have previously kidnapped and beheaded an elderly Sufi leader, accusing him of practising magic, which Islam forbids, and abducted Sufi practitioners who have later been released after "repenting".
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.
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.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Egypt’s Ambassador to France, Ehab Ahmed Badawy said the militants were seeking to divide Egyptian society in order to trigger a civil war.
“They started by attacking Christians, Copts, in their churches. Now they are attacking Muslims in their mosques, and as you are well aware, they’re attacking all those who are combatting terrorism,” he said.
“I hope that in one month we will have Sinai back like it used to be – 60,000 square kilometres totally secured.”
Horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenseless worshipers in Egypt. The world cannot tolerate terrorism, we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 24, 2017
State condolences poured in for Egypt, including messages from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the US, Russia, France and Britain condemning the violence.
The UN Security Council called it a "heinous and cowardly terrorist attack" and reiterated that all acts of terrorism "are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation".
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.
Reopening of Gaza Rafah crossing delayed
Following the deadly attack, an official told the AFP news agency that the Gaza Strip's border crossing with Egypt – and which was due to reopen for three days on Saturday – would remain closed until further notice.
"The Egyptian side informed us that Rafah will not reopen on Saturday because of the tragic events in Northern Sinai," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The border reopened last Saturday for three days for the first time since the November 1 transfer of control of Gaza crossing points from the Islamist Hamas movement to the Palestinian Authority.
It had been closed since August, and the reopening allowed patients, students and stranded people to leave the Palestinian enclave.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)