By Agence France-Presse
Militants on Wednesday killed eight Egyptian policemen at a checkpoint in the restive Sinai Peninsula, authorities said, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
As Egyptian Muslims marked the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, authorities said militants had killed eight security personnel at a checkpoint west of El-Arish, the capital of the turbulent North Sinai region.
“Terrorist elements targeted a checkpoint west of El-Arish early this morning,” the interior ministry said. “The exchange of fire killed five terrorist elements and eight police were martyred.”
Some militants escaped and security forces were following their movements, it added.
The northeastern region is the hotbed of a years-long insurgency by militants, some linked to the Islamic State group, who have regularly hit security forces.
In a statement released on social media by its propaganda wing, Amaq, IS said its fighters had launched “two simultaneous attacks on two police checkpoints” in El-Arish.
It said its fighters had killed several officers and destroyed tanks before leaving the area.
The insurgent group named one checkpoint as Al-Sabil, which a security source confirmed had been targeted.
IS said the attack was aimed at undermining Egyptian authorities’ “efforts over many years to brand the city… as safe”.
It did not say if any of its militants had been killed.
A security source told AFP that two of the militants had managed to hijack two tanks belonging to the Central Security Forces, a force under the interior ministry’s control.
But a military plane destroyed one and security forces killed the other militant in a shootout, he said, providing photos of the charred tanks.
– Reinforcements –
The source said reinforcements had been deployed to the checkpoint near El-Arish.
“The checkpoint is currently surrounded by the army and police,” he said.
Three members of the Central Security Forces were also wounded in the attack and taken to El-Arish public hospital, a medical source told AFP.
Egyptian state television said there were fears the death toll could rise, amid reports of attacks on multiple checkpoints.
It also broadcast still images it said were of the slain attackers.
Egyptian social media users, including Liverpool footballer Mohamed Salah, paid tribute to the police officers killed as Muslims marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
“Heartfelt prayers to those martyrs of El-Arish checkpoint, sending condolences to all the families of the martyrs killed today,” Salah wrote on Twitter.
The interior ministry did not release the identities of the slain officers.
Egypt has for years been battling North Sinai insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State group.
Hundreds of police officers and soldiers have been killed in militant attacks, which surged after the army’s ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Police raids in May killed 16 suspected militants in North Sinai, according to the interior ministry.
The ministry said last month it had intelligence that militants were planning attacks on “important and vital facilities”, as well as prominent figures in El-Arish.
In late 2017, North Sinai was the scene of the deadliest jihadist attack in Egypt’s modern history when militants killed more than 300 worshippers at a mosque, without any group claiming responsibility.
– Nationwide offensive –
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the army’s ouster of Morsi, has presented himself as a bulwark against terrorism and a rock of political stability in a region hit by turmoil.
In February 2018, the army launched a nationwide offensive against the Islamists, focused mainly on the North Sinai.
According to official figures, around 650 militants have been killed since the start of the operation, while the army has lost some 50 soldiers.
No independent statistics are available and the region is largely cut off to journalists, making verification of casualty figures extremely difficult.
Last month, a roadside bomb hit a tourist bus near Egypt’s famed Giza pyramids, wounding several passengers including South Africans.
The attack dealt another blow to the North African country’s efforts to revive its key tourism industry after years of turmoil.
Authorities have gone at great lengths to lure tourists back, touting enhanced security at stadiums and airports.
The country is set to host the African Cup of Nations later this month, although most matches will take place well away from the troubled North Sinai region.