Thu | Dec 14, 2017

Militants assault worshippers in Sinai, killing at least 200

Published:Saturday | November 25, 2017 | 12:00 AM
This photo released by Egypt's Presidency shows Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, centre, meeting with officials in Cairo after militants attacked a crowded mosque during yesterday's prayers in the Sinai Peninsula. (Egyptian Presidency via AP)

AL-ARISH (AP) :

Militants attacked a crowded mosque during yesterday's prayers in the Sinai Peninsula, setting off explosives, spraying worshippers with gunfire killing at least 200 people in the deadliest ever attack on Egyptian civilians by Islamic extremists.

The attack targeted a mosque frequented by Sufis, members of Islam's mystical movement, in the north Sinai town of Bir al-Abd. Islamic militants, including the local affiliate of the Islamic State group, consider Sufis heretics because of their less literal interpretations of the faith.

The IS affiliate has been waging a stepped-up campaign of violence in northern Sinai for years and has claimed deadly bombings on churches in the capital, Cairo, and other cities, killing dozens of Christians. It also is believed to have been behind the 2016 downing of a Russian passenger jet that killed 226.

But this was the first major militant attack on a Muslim mosque, and the startling bloodshed eclipsed any past attacks of its kind, even dating back to a previous Islamic militant insurgency in the 1990s.

The militants opened fire from four off-road vehicles on worshippers inside the mosque during the sermon, blocking off escape routes from the area by blowing up cars and leaving the burning wrecks blocking the roads, three police officers on the scene said.

Victims, including some 130 wounded, were rushed to local hospitals, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief reporters.

No one claimed responsibility immediately following the attack, but IS has targeted Sufis several times in the area in the past, notably beheading a leading Sufi religious figure, the blind sheikh , Suleiman Abu Heraz, last year and posting photos of the killing online.

Images circulating on social media showed dozens of bloodied bodies wrapped up in sheets laid across the mosque floor, while others revealed dozens of relatives queuing up outside the hospital as ambulances raced back and forth.