Militants target mosque with bomb, gunfire in Egypt's north Sinai

An Islamic State attack on an Egyptian police checkpoint in el-Arish earlier this year. The north Sinai has again been targeted, with the attack this time coming on a mosque during Friday prayers. Photo: AP
An Islamic State attack on an Egyptian police checkpoint in el-Arish earlier this year. The north Sinai has again been targeted, with the attack this time coming on a mosque during Friday prayers. Photo: AP

At least 235 people were killed on Friday when Islamist militants set off a bomb and opened fire on people attending prayers at a mosque in Egypt's restive northern Sinai, according to the country's public prosecutor.

No group claimed responsibility for the assault but it was the deadliest yet in the region where for three years Egyptian security forces have battled an Islamic State insurgency that has killed hundreds of police and soldiers.

State media showed images of bloodied victims and bodies covered in blankets inside the Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, west of the city of El Arish. Scores more were were wounded, the state news agency MENA reported.

"They were shooting at people as they left the mosque," a local resident whose relatives were at the scene told Reuters. "They were shooting at the ambulances too."

Arabiya news channel and some local sources said some of the worshippers were sufis who hardliners such as Islamic State regard as apostates because they revere saints and shrines, which for Islamists is tantamount to idolatry.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former armed forces commander who presents himself as a bulwark against Islamist militants in the region, convened an emergency security meeting soon after the attack, state television said.

Attacks on mosques are rare in Egypt, where Islamic State has mostly targeted Coptic Christian churches in recent years.

Militants have also targeted security forces in their attacks since bloodshed in the Sinai worsened after 2013 when Sisi, then an armed forces commander, led the overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But jihadists have also targeted local Sinai tribes that are working with the armed forces, branding them traitors for cooperating with the army and police.

In July this year, at least 23 soldiers were killed when suicide car bombs hit two military checkpoints in the Sinai, an attack claimed by Islamic State.

Militants have tried to expand beyond the largely barren, desert Sinai Peninsula into Egypt's heavily populated mainland, hitting Coptic Christian churches and pilgrims.

In May, gunmen attacked a Coptic group travelling to a monastery in southern Egypt, killing 29.

The attack comes as Egyptian authorities have been hoping to stem the tide of Islamist violence in Sinai, thanks to their sponsorship of a Palestinian peace initiative involving Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

Islamic State militants have previously used tunnels into Gaza to source weapons and get medical treatment for wounded fighters. One benefit for Egypt of the peace initiative, which Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate has mediated, is greater control over those tunnels.

Reuters, New York Times

The story, Militants target mosque with bomb, gunfire in Egypt's north Sinai, first appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald.