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'Eid turned into a funeral': Sinai attack leaves Egyptian soldiers dead and questions hanging

At least eight soldiers and five militants were killed in Arish on Wednesday, but hospital sources tell MEE death toll is higher
Omar al-Kady, 23, a police officer, was killed in the attack (Twitter/Courtesy of Family)

Mohamed and his family were attending prayers for Eid in the North Sinai city of Arish early on Wednesday morning when they heard fireworks.

But they soon realised the fireworks were, in fact, explosions and gunfire, and ran from the open hall where they had gathered, Mohamed told Middle East Eye. MEE is not publishing the full names of those interviewed to protect their safety.

Nearby, militants in the restive North Sinai city had launched an attack, starting with a police checkpoint. When a backup squad arrived at the scene, it was ambushed by a second group of militants, a Sinai-based military source told Middle East Eye.

At least eight security personnel, mostly conscripts, were killed in the attack, and five militants were also killed in an ensuing gun battle, according to Egypt's Ministry of Interior.

Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack, but MEE could not independently verify the statement. The Ministry of Interior said on Thursday its forces killed 14 suspects in Arish after the attack.

Sinai Map

“[Security forces] engaged with these elements in a shootout, leading to the killing of five terrorist elements, and the martyrdom of one senior officer, one security officer, and six soldiers," the statement said.

A source in Al-Arish hospital told MEE that he had seen 10 dead bodies that had mostly been killed by gunshots.

'We heard that he called in his wireless and said 'Tell my mother that I love her and that I died like a man''

- Friend of killed police officer Omar al-Kady

"I have counted 10 bodies, most are members of the police, but the injured are much higher than that," he said. He added that military hospitals were also receiving bodies and injured people so he believed the death toll might be higher.

One of those killed was 23-year-old Omar al-Kady, a police officer, a colleague who asked to remain anonymous told MEE.

The colleague saw on Twitter that Abtal 14 - the checkpoint where al-Kady worked - had been attacked. "I kept calling people until I learned that he was one of the heroes who died," he said.

"Omar was a very compassionate person... Whenever he used to hear about soldiers and officer getting killed in Sinai, he used to be very sad. Today was his turn, it seems. I am very devastated.

"We heard that he called in his wireless and said 'Tell my mother that I love her and that I died like a man'," he added.

Decades of insurgency

There has been militant insurgency in Sinai since the early 2000s which picked up after the 2011 uprising, with attacks on gas pipelines in Sinai running to Israel and Jordan.

After Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 in a military coup, attacks ratcheted up with nearly weekly incidents as militants accused the army of displacing locals and launching air strikes on civilian homes.

In 2014, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, an established militant group in Sinai, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS) and changed its name to Sinai Province, claiming to be an IS branch. 

As the Egyptian military has struggled to defeat the group, which has launched attacks on tourists, security forces and houses of worship, it has also been accused of committing war crimes against civilians in the area.

According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, the crimes include widespread arbitrary arrests of civilians, torture, and extrajudicial killings - abuses that have been largely undocumented due to the ban on independent media coverage in the area.

Seven current and former soldiers told MEE earlier this year that they have been poorly trained for the war in Sinai, which independent researchers say has killed more than 1,500 security personnel.

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The colleague of al-Kady questioned where better-trained security forces, like the General Intelligence Services and counter-terrorism units, were when Wednesday's attack occurred. 

"Are they only for show? Why would Omar who is only 23, and accompanied by conscripts who are between 19 and 22, be manning a checkpoint where there is gangster warfare?" he said.

"While on the other hand, the takfiris [militants] are suicidal and trained by people who are even older than those conscripts."

Residents of Arish told MEE that the celebrations on the first day of Eid had turned to devastation.

Abdallah, a teacher from Shiekh Zuweid, a town near Arish, had been spending Eid in Arish with his wife and kids.

"Now Arish is very quiet," he said. “Everyone is scared because they are saying the terrorists might be hiding inside the city."

Another resident said she cut her prayers short and went home. "Eid turned into a funeral,” she told MEE.

“This is the first time that the curfew is not enforced, but now everyone is enforcing it on their own."

Wednesday’s attack comes a week after Egypt’s most wanted militant, Hisham Ashmawy, was extradited to Cairo by eastern Libyan rulers one year after his capture by forces loyal to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar.

Ashmawy, a former special forces officer in the Egyptian army and one-time militant leader in Sinai, had been wanted by Cairo on charges of orchestrating assassination attempts against top officials and a range of terror attacks.

Sisi said after Ashmawy's extradition that "the war on terror has not ended".