Sinai militants killed more than 230 people in a mosque in Egypt’s North Sinai on Friday afternoon, detonating a bomb and gunning down worshippers in the deadliest attack on civilians in the country’s modern history.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but since 2013, Egyptian security forces have battled a stubborn Islamic State affiliate in the mainly desert region, and militants have 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 El Arish, the main city in North Sinai.
Worshippers were finishing Friday prayers at the mosque when a bomb exploded, witnesses said.
Around 40 gunmen set up positions outside the mosque with jeeps and opened fire from different directions as people tried to escape, witnesses said.
“They were shooting at people as they left the mosque. They were shooting at the ambulances too,” said a local resident whose relatives were at the scene.
Striking at a mosque would be a change in tactics for the Sinai militants, who have usually attacked troops and police and churches.
Arabiya news channel and some local sources said some of the worshippers were Sufis, whom groups such as Islamic State consider targets because they revere saints and shrines, which for Islamists is tantamount to idolatry.
The jihadists have also attacked local tribes and their militias for working with the army and police, branding them traitors.
The Sinai branch is one of Islamic State’s surviving branches following the collapse of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq after military defeats by U.S.-backed forces.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former armed forces commander who presents himself as a bulwark against Islamist militancy, convened an emergency meeting with his defence and interior ministers and intelligence chief soon after the attack, the presidency and state television said.
Security has long been one of the key sources of public support for the former general, who is expected to run for re-election early next year for another four-year term.
He promised the attack “would not go unpunished”.
“Justice will be served against all those who participated, contributed, supported, funded, or instigated this cowardly attack,” Sisi said in a statement.
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