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Egypt vows to wipe out 'dens of terror' after Sinai attacks

Egypt is facing an increasingly powerful insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula which is emerging as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's biggest challenge
Residents gather outside a police station in North Sinai's provincial capital of El-Arish after a car bomb on 12 April 2015 (AFP)

Egypt vowed on Thursday to crush an escalating insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula after Islamic State militants killed dozens in their most spectacular assault yet in the strife-plagued region.

The violence poses a major test for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who has pledged to wipe out the militants.

The military deployed F-16 warplanes on Wednesday to bomb IS fighters who battled security forces on the streets of the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid after launching a surprise dawn blitz on army checkpoints.

The military said 17 soldiers and 100 militants had been killed, although security officials initially reported at least 70 people, mostly soldiers, had died along with dozens of militants.

"The armed forces are leading a vicious war against terrorism," the military said in a statement.

"We have the will and determination to root out this black terrorism," it added. "We will not stop until Sinai is cleansed of all the dens of terror."

In a statement issued by the United Nations in accordance with initial government reports, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon deplored the attacks.

He conveyed his condolences to the families of the victims and to the government of Egypt.

"The United Nations stands firm with the people of Egypt in their fight against terrorism," Ki Moon's spokesperson also said.

The reason for the discrepancy in the tolls remains unclear.

The White House condemned the unprecedented wave of attacks, which came two days after state prosecutor Hisham Barakat was assassinated in a Cairo car bombing, the most senior government official killed in the insurgency.

"The United States stands resolutely with Egypt amidst the spate of terrorist attacks ...and will continue to assist Egypt in addressing these threats to its security," the US National Security Council said.

According to Egypt’s al-Shorouk newspaper, Washington also signalled to Cairo that the US is looking to remove the multinational peacekeeping taskforce in Sinai seeing that Israel and Egypt have maintained intelligence and security coordination along the borders.

A US regiment-sized element called Task Force Sinai of the peacekeeping organisation Multinational Force and Observers, has been in place in Sinai since 1982.

Although there have been no further reports on a potential elimination of the taskforce, Israel closed its Niztana and Kerem Shalom crossings along the Sinai borders on Wednesday following the attacks.

Also on Wednesday, at least nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood were shot dead by Egyptian security forces in a flat in the Sixth of October district in Cairo.

Liberal political activist Wael Abbas condemned the killings.

“What happened to the Brotherhood leaders is unacceptable and a criminal act. These are illegal killings,” said Abbas according to the Egyptian news agency RASD.

Media support

Egyptian state-owned newspapers rallied around the army.

"Victory or martyrdom," said a front-page headline in Al-Ghomuriya. "Revenge," said a headline in Al-Akhbar.

The military spokesman posted photographs on his Facebook page of militants killed in the fighting.

The Sinai attacks were the most brazen in their scope since militants launched an insurgency in 2013 after the army, under Sisi's command, overthrew President Mohamed Morsi.

Militants took over rooftops and fired rocket-propelled grenades at a police station in Sheikh Zuweid after mining its exits to block reinforcements, a police colonel said.

"For hours the terrorists moved freely in the streets which they had mined," Ayman Mohsen, a resident from Sheikh Zweid who witnessed Wednesday's clashes, told AFP.

"They fired rockets and bullets at the army camp in Zuhour and the Sheikh Zuweid police station."

"This is war," a senior military officer told AFP. "It's unprecedented, in the number of terrorists involved and the type of weapons they are using."

The Islamic State group said its militants surrounded the police station after launching attacks on 15 checkpoints and security installations using several suicide car bombers and rockets.

Military expertise

Troops regularly come under attack in the Sinai, where militants have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers since Morsi's overthrow.

Wednesday's attack was similar to a series of ambushes on 2 April in which dozens of militants attacked checkpoints, killing 15 soldiers.

In January, a rocket and car bomb attack on a military base, police headquarters and residential complex for troops and police killed at least 24 people, most of them soldiers.

The attacks have come despite stringent security measures in the Sinai, including a night-time curfew and the creation of a buffer zone along the Gaza border.

Analysts said the army lacked expertise in fighting the insurgents.

"It's not putting in the right units. The groups need to be chased by special forces and what the army is doing is that it is deploying regiments. Sending F-16s does not work," Professor Mathieu Guidere, a specialist on militant groups at France's University of Toulouse, told AFP.

Controversial terror law

Egypt responded to the growing insurgency on Wednesday by passing a controversial anti-terror law and requesting the appeals process be shortened, in measures it said would "achieve swift justice and revenge for our martyrs".

Wednesday's draft law will provide "means to drain the sources of terrorism financing," a cabinet statement said.

Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim Henaidy told state-run Al-Ahram newspaper that the new law will "stipulate harsher punishment" to those convicted of "belonging to a terrorist group...committing terrorist acts or [having] used violence".

The proposed law will also widen the powers of "investigators of terrorist crimes," grant new authorities to the prosecution, and "facilitate procedures to inspect and examine bank accounts" of suspects, Henaidy said.

Sisi has also vowed to toughen laws and suggested fast-track executions following the state prosecutor's assassination.