CAIRO • Militants armed with guns and explosives stormed a mosque in Egypt's restive northern Sinai province yesterday, killing at least 235 people and wounding 125 others, in the deadliest attack in the country in years.
The assault on the Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abd, roughly 40km west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, targeted people gathered for Friday prayers, when mosques in Egypt often overflow with worshippers.
Militants in four vehicles drove up to the mosque, set off an improvised explosive device outside the building and opened fire on people praying inside, according to a senior official in the North Sinai security directorate who asked not to be named.
A military official said a suicide bomber was involved in the attack. The attackers lingered at the scene even as emergency workers arrived to treat the injured, and opened fire on several ambulances, senior government health official Ahmed el-Ansari told state television. Locals took up weapons to help thwart the attackers, he said. The suspects fled as security forces arrived.
The victims included civilians and conscripts praying at the mosque.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called a meeting of his security committee and declared three days of mourning, state-run television said.
Even by recent standards in Egypt, where militants have blown up Christian worshippers in church pews and gunned down pilgrims in buses, it was an unusually ruthless assault.
The militants have instead increasingly turned to civilian targets, attacking not only Christians and Sufis, but also Bedouin Sinai inhabitants accused of working with the army.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group's Egypt branch has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, as well as civilians accused of working with the authorities, in attacks in the north of the Sinai peninsula.
They have also targeted followers of the mystical Sufi branch of Sunni Islam as well as Christians.
A tribal leader and head of a Bedouin militia that fights ISIS said the mosque is known as a gathering place for Sufis. The ISIS group shares the puritan Salafi view of Sufis as heretics for seeking the intercession of saints.
The military has struggled to quell the terrorists, who pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. ISIS regularly conducts attacks against soldiers and policemen in the peninsula bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, although the frequency and scale of such attacks has diminished over the past year.
The militants have instead increasingly turned to civilian targets, attacking not only Christians and Sufis, but also Bedouin Sinai inhabitants accused of working with the army. Egypt also faces a threat from Al-Qaeda-aligned terrorists who operate out of Libya.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES