Egypt’s air force has conducted air strikes against suspected terrorists after the country’s President vowed to respond with the “utmost force” against militants who killed 305 worshippers at a mosque in the Sinai village of Bir al-Abed.
A military source told The Independent that the air strikes had destroyed vehicles linked to the attackers, who used machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to mow down worshippers in the packed mosque during noon prayers on Friday.
“Egypt’s air force is following the trail of the terrorists and has destroyed two or three of their vehicles,” the military source said.
Other Egyptian military sources later reported that the air strikes had killed everyone inside the vehicles, although it has not yet been possible to independently verify this claim.
It is understood that the air strikes took place in mountainous areas around Bir al-Abed – the small village where the attack took place, 40km west of North Sinai’s main city al-Arish – hours after the attack.
At about the same time, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave a televised address to the nation in which he vowed: “The armed forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and restore security and stability with the utmost force.
“What is happening is an attempt to stop us from our efforts in the fight against terrorism, to destroy our efforts to stop the terrible criminal plan that aim to destroy what is left of our region.”
As the official death toll rose to 305 on Saturday morning, more details emerged of the attack, the deadliest by Islamist extremists in Egypt’s modern history.
The attack began when five off-road vehicles carrying been 25 and 30 armed men arrived at the al-Rawdah mosque just as the noon sermon was about to start.
The main cleric at the mosque, Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Fatah Zowraiq said at least a dozen attackers charged in, opening fire randomly.
He said there were also explosions. Officials cited by the state news agency Mena said the attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades as well as machine guns, and shot people as they tried to run from the building.
Witnesses speaking to Associated Press (AP) in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia where some of the wounded were taken, told how the attackers spent about 20 minutes killing and maiming worshippers.
They spoke of worshippers jumping out of windows, of a stampede in a corridor leading to the bathrooms and of children screaming in horror.
Some spoke of their narrow escape from certain death, others of families that lost all or most of their male members.
Mansour, a 38-year-old worker in a nearby salt factory, told AP: “Everyone lay down on the floor and kept their heads down. If you raised your head you get shot.
“The shooting was random and hysterical at the beginning and then became more deliberate: whoever they weren’t sure was dead or still breathing was shot dead.”
Mansour, who suffered two gunshot wounds in the legs, said that as children screamed in terror, the militants shouted “Allahu Akbar” or God is great.
Panicked worshippers hid behind concrete columns or whatever shelter they could find.
“I knew I was injured,” said Mansour, “but I was in a situation that was much scarier than being wounded. I was only seconds away from a certain death.”
Mansour, who said he had settled in Bir al-Abed three years ago in the hope of escaping the violence elsewhere in northern Sinai, added that as the shooting continued, many of the worshippers recited their final prayers.
Abdullah Abdel-Nasser, 14, who was attending prayers with his father, said that at one point, a militant shouted for children to leave.
The teenager rushed out, despite being wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel and a bullet.
“I saw many people on the floor, many dead,” he said. “I don’t think anyone survived.”
Three police officers on the scene said the militants also used burning cars to block roads, effectively cutting off escape routes and impeding the progress of anyone trying to get into Bir al-Abed to stop the attack.
Despite the attackers’ call for children to leave, 27 children are among the dead. Egypt’s chief prosecutor Nabil Sadeq said the total death toll currently stood at 305, with 126 people wounded.
It is believed that many of the victims were workers at the salt factory who had come for Friday services at the mosque, which practises Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that extremist radicals regard as heretical.
Despite the military air strikes, at least one Bir al-Abed resident demanded to know why the Egyptian army had been unable to stop the terrorist attack while it was in progress.
Mohammed Ali, who said 18 members of his extended family were killed in the attack, demanded: “Where was the army? It’s only a few kilometres away. This is the question we cannot answer.”
Responsibility for the attack has not yet been claimed by any group, but since 2011 North Sinai has been the site of an ongoing insurgency by jihadists, who since 2014 have been aligned with Isis. The group is responsible for near-weekly attacks on the army and police in Sinai, and claimed responsibility in 2015 for downing a plane leaving the Sharm El-Sheikh beach resort, killing all the mostly Russian tourists on board.
“Almost every sign points toward Isis in Sinai” being behind Friday’s mosque attack, Mohannad Sabry, a Sinai expert and author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare, told The Independent. “They have had a decades-old lethal animosity with the Sufi community in Sinai and have killed several of their most revered clerics over the past years.”
The Isis branch in Sinai, which calls itself “Sinai State”, claimed responsibility for the beheading of two Sufi sheikhs in December 2016, accusing them of apostasy and sorcery, and threatened that it would not allow the presence of Sufi orders in Sinai or Egypt. The group has also frequently destroyed Sufi shrines in North Sinai.
A Sinai resident who did not want to be named told The Independent that in general there has been a change in how locals perceive Sufis in recent years. “It’s not really sectarianism but more like ‘us versus the other’, which was not common among Bedouins.”
The military source who informed The Independent of the air strikes also believed Isis was behind the attack.
“They attack everyone; Christians, Muslims, the military,” he said.
He also suggested the attack could indicate a change of tactics, as this is the first such large-scale assault directly targeting civilians in the region.
“They did kill civilians, but not at this scale,” he said.
Mr Sabry said the “unique and unprecedented attack” sent “a loud message to the North Sinai community that even a Muslim house of worship, as long as it doesn’t pledge allegiance to Isis, is a target.”
There was, Mr Sabry added, another reason for Isis to attack Sufis.
“The Sufi community in North Sinai has definitely succeeded in what billions of dollars and hundreds of lives spent by Egypt’s military could not achieve,” he said. “It powerfully kept thousands of youths away from joining the ranks of Isis and has continued to fight them on social, intellectual and most importantly religious levels.”
Despite successive army campaigns and after years of unrest, the mosque attack served as a dark reminder that the violence in Sinai is not decreasing, and that Isis has not been weakened.
“Once again it casts major doubt on the claims of success and achievements spread so loudly by Sisi’s regime and the Egyptian military,” Mr Sabry said. “This attack hit a geographic area the military claims is under control, proving that Isis is still maintaining some of its capabilities to mobilise weapons, explosives and fighters despite years of war with one of the biggest and strongest military forces in the Middle East.”
Asked about progress in the fight against terrorism, the military source said the army was “doing its best”.
“The terrorists are hiding in between the civilians, that’s the problem,” he claimed.
Mr Sisi announced three-days of mourning in response to the attack.
Other countries offered their condolences to Egypt, with British Prime Minister Theresa May calling it an “evil and cowardly act” and the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, condemning the attack and saying Paris stood with its ally.
US President Donald Trump denounced what he called a “horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenceless worshippers in Egypt”.
“The world cannot tolerate terrorism,” he said on Twitter. “We must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence.”
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