An Egyptian militant cell affiliated with the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for attacks that killed at least 32 people in the Sinai Peninsula on Thursday night.
Militants launched mortar rounds and rockets, as well as detonating car bombs in coordinated assaults on the North Sinai capital al-Arish's security directorate, an army base in the region, a military residential complex, and a number of checkpoints, local media reported.
Officials told the Associated Press today that 32 people were killed and more than 60 injured, mostly members of the security forces. The state-controlled Al-Ahram newspaper also said its al-Arish office was damaged in the attack.
An assault was also launched on a checkpoint in Rafah, killing a soldier, while a police officer was killed by an IED in Suez.
State media reported that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will cut short a visit to Ethiopia for an African Union summit and return to Egypt on Friday.
A Twitter account linked with Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which now styles itself as the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) quickly claimed it was responsible for "extensive, simultaneous attacks in the cities of al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah" in North Sinai.
However a military official blamed ousted President Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and claimed in a statement that the attacks were a response to a "successful" security campaign and "the failure of the terrorist Brotherhood and its supporting elements to spread chaos on the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution." Longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown on January 25, 2011 following a mass uprising.
The security situation in the Sinai has deteriorated rapidly since then, leading to a full-blown insurgency when Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, was removed from power by the army in 2013. His supporters subsequently staged widespread protests, but the military-backed government cracked down hard, killing hundreds, jailing thousands, and sentencing many to death after widely condemned trials.
Militants have gone on to kill hundreds of troops and police in the Sinai Peninsula region and security forces are seemingly unable to contain the threat. Attacks have spread to elsewhere in the country, including the capital of Cairo. Authorities often blame Morsi's backers, something Muslim Brotherhood members deny.
The government imposed a state of emergency and night-time curfews in the areas where the attacks took place since an October 24 assault near al-Arish that killed 30 soldiers.
Security forces have also forcibly cleared and demolished a large section of the town of Rafah on the Gaza border to broaden an existing buffer zone that army chiefs say is used by militants to enter Sinai and smuggle in weapons.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis changed its name in November 2014 after swearing allegiance to the Islamic State, the armed extremist organization that controls large parts of Iraq and Syria. It is the most deadly insurgent group operating in Egypt and has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, including the October al-Arish killings. Commanders have since told Reuters that they had received direct guidance from the Islamic State.
US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the attacks in a statement, which put the death toll at 29. "A prosperous and strong Egypt requires an environment of security and stability, and the United States remains steadfast in its support of the Egyptian government's efforts to combat the threat of terrorism in Egypt as part of our continuing commitment to the strategic partnership between our two countries," she said. Washington considers Egypt to be an important strategic ally and provides it with hundreds of millions in military aid annually.
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