Deadly ISIS car bomb hits Italian consulate in Egypt

Onlookers stand near the site of the blast at the Italian Consulate in Cairo.
Onlookers stand near the site of the blast at the Italian Consulate in Cairo.REUTERS

CAIRO (AFP) - The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group said it was behind a deadly car bomb attack on Italy’s consulate in the Egyptian capital Saturday, and warned Muslims to stay away from such places.

“Soldiers of the Islamic State in Cairo were able to detonate a parked booby-trapped vehicle laden with 450kg of explosives at the headquarters of the Italian consulate,” the Site Intelligence Group quoted an ISIS tweet as saying.

“We advise Muslims to stay away from these security dens, because they are legitimate targets for strikes of the mujahedeen,” the statement added.

Health ministry spokesman Hossam Abdel Ghaffar said the blast killed a civilian and wounded nine people, including policemen and passers-by.

It was the first attack on a foreign mission in Egypt since extremists began a campaign against the country’s security forces two years ago following a crackdown on Islamists.

The early morning explosion was heard across the city and wrecked the facade of the building, part of a large complex that also includes a social club and a school.

The consulate, near the prosecutor’s office and supreme court in central Cairo, had been closed for the weekend.

Saturday’s attack comes less than two weeks after suspected militants assassinated Egypt’s top prosecutor in a Cairo car bombing.

The mangled wreck of a vehicle was strewn on the street outside the consulate. Some 50 buildings in the area were damaged.

The Italian consul in Cairo arrived at the scene as condemnations poured in from Rome.

“Italy will not let itself be intimidated,” said Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni in a tweet, adding that there had been no Italian casualties.

He later told a news conference that the consulate had been the intended target.

ITALY 'INTENDS TO RESPOND'

“We intend to respond firmly but also soberly... without alarmism,” Gentiloni added.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and said the two countries will stand together “in the fight against terrorism and fanaticism”.

Militants have carried out scores of attacks since the army, then led by Sisi, overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Militant attacks have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, mostly in the Sinai Peninsula.

Diplomats had told AFP they had been warned by police months ago that embassies could be targeted, but it was not clear whether this was based on specific intelligence.

At least one Western embassy had been relocated over security concerns.

The attack was also denounced by EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and France, as both expressed solidarity with Egypt.

“Once again Egypt is under attack, once again Europeans have been hit by terrorists,” Mogherini said in a statement.

“We stand by the Egyptian authorities in their efforts to fight terrorism and bring the perpetrators of this attack to justice.”

In Sinai, militants loyal to ISIS in Iraq and Syria launched a wave of attacks on July 1 that killed at least 21 soldiers.

ISIS, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria, has called on its affiliates elsewhere to attack Western targets.

UPROAR OVER NEW LAW

The latest bombing comes with the government set to approve an anti-terrorism law that has sparked uproar among journalists and rights activists.

The new legislation appears to grant police and soldiers impunity when carrying out “anti-terrorism” operations, and stipulates death sentences for the founders of vaguely defined “terrorist” groups.

Five-year jail terms could also be meted out for promoting “terrorism” on social media.

The draft law would ban independent reporting of militant attacks, stipulating a two-year prison sentence for journalists who contradict death tolls in official statements.

The cabinet has said it would reconsider that provision following a media outcry.

Rights groups say freedoms have been trampled under Sisi’s administration.

Sisi won elections last year, pledging to wipe out the militants and Morsi’s blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood.

He had overseen a crackdown that killed at least 1,400 people, mostly Islamist protesters during the dispersal of sometimes violent protests.

Thousands have been jailed, including secular dissidents, and hundreds sentenced to death in mass trials, although most have won retrials.

The crackdown initially brought international pressure on Sisi, especially from the European Union, before giving way to support as he positions himself as a front line opponent of regional extremists.

Sisi is widely popular in Egypt, where many have demanded a strong leader who can restore stability after more than four years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak.