Cairo: Gunmen attacked a packed mosque in Egypt’s restive North Sinai province on Friday and set off a bomb, killing at least 235 people in one of the country’s deadliest attacks in recent memory, state media reported.
A bomb explosion ripped through the Rawda mosque roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said.
Witnesses said the assailants had surrounded the mosque with all-terrain vehicles then planted a bomb outside.
The gunmen then mowed down the panicked worshippers as they attempted to flee and used the congregants’ vehicles they had set alight to block routes to the mosque.
State television reported at least 184 people were killed and 125 wounded in the attack, which is unprecedented in a four-year insurgency by Islamist extremist groups.
Egypt’s presidency declared three days of mourning, state television reported, as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met his security ministers to follow developments.
Ahmed Abul Gheit, head of the Arab League which is based in Cairo, condemned the “terrifying crime which again shows that Islam is innocent of those who follow an extremist terrorist ideology,” his spokesman said in a statement.
Islamic State views Sufis as heretics
The Islamic State group’s Egypt branch has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, and also 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.
The victims included civilians and conscripts praying at the mosque.
A tribal leader and head of a Bedouin militia that fights Islamic State told AFP that the mosque is known as a place of gathering for Sufis.
The Islamic State group shares the puritan Salafi view of Sufis as heretics for seeking the intercession of saints.
The jihadists had previously kidnapped and beheaded an elderly Sufi leader, accusing him of practising magic which Islam forbids, and abducted Sufi practitioners later released after “repenting.”
The group has killed more than 100 Christians in church bombings and shootings in Sinai and other parts of Egypt, forcing many to flee the peninsula.
The military has struggled to quell the jihadists who pledged allegiance to Islamic State in November 2014.
Islamic State 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 jihadists have since increasingly turned to civilian targets, attacking not only Christians and Sufis but also Bedouin Sinai inhabitants accused of working with the army.
Aside from Islamic State, Egypt also faces a threat from Al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists who operate out of neighbouring Libya.
A group calling itself Ansar al-Islam, Supporters of Islam in Arabic claimed an October ambush in Egypt’s the Western Desert that killed at least 16 policemen.
Many of those killed belonged to the interior ministry’s secretive National Security Service.
The military later conducted air strikes on the attackers, killing their leader Emad al-Din Abdel Hamid, a most wanted jihadist who was a military officer before joining an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Libya’s militant stronghold of Derna.