CAIRO • Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants launched a massive coordinated assault on several military checkpoints in Egypt's North Sinai, killing at least 70 people, security sources said.
The onslaught yesterday, the largest attack yet in the insurgency-hit province, marked a significant escalation in violence in the Sinai Peninsula, located between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.
It also raised questions about the government's ability to contain an insurgency that has already killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers. On Monday, a car bomb in Cairo killed the prosecutor-general .
The militant group's Egyptian affiliate Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the Sinai attacks in a Twitter statement.
The army said five checkpoints were attacked by about 70 militants, and that soldiers had destroyed three landcruisers fitted with anti-aircraft guns.
The fighting, which raged for more than eight hours, was the biggest onslaught yet in the insurgency. One security source put the number of militants, who were armed with heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry, at about 300.
Sources said the militants had planned to lay siege to Sheikh Zuweid town - where most of the fighting has been concentrated - by hitting all army checkpoints simultaneously. "But we have dealt with them and broke the siege on Sheikh Zuweid," said one source.
The insurgency, which is seeking to topple the Cairo government, has intensified since 2013, when then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed then President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood after mass protests against his rule.
Mr Sisi, who regards the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to national security, has since overseen a harsh crackdown on Islamists.
The Egyptian courts have sentenced hundreds of alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death in recent months. Mursi and other senior figures in the organisation also face the death penalty.
Sinai Province said in yesterday's statement that it had attacked more than 15 security sites and carried out three suicide bombings.
"It is a sharp reminder that despite the intensive counter-terrorism military campaign in the Sinai over the past 6 months, ISIS' ranks are not decreasing - if anything they are increasing in numbers as well as sophistication, training and daring," Mr Aimen Dean, a former Al-Qaeda insider who now runs a Gulf-based security consultancy, said in a note.
ISIS had urged its followers to escalate attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which started in the middle of last month, though it did not specify that Egypt was a target.
In April, the army extended by three months a state of emergency imposed in parts of Sinai.
The army has taken several measures to crush the insurgency.
Besides bombardments in the region, it has destroyed tunnels into the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip and created a security buffer zone in northern Sinai.