Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed or injured following a bomb and gun attack during Friday prayers at a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
The country’s state-run MENA news agency said that at least 235 people have died and 130 have been injured, making it one of the deadliest attacks in modern Egyptian history.
MENA described it as a “terrorist incident,” citing “official sources.” Egypt’s health ministry, meanwhile, initially said that 85 people had died and 80 had been injured.
Scores of ambulances were dispatched to the attack site to transfer victims to hospitals, according to a press release issued by the State Information Service.
Eyewitnesses told the privately run al-Yawm al-Sabah website that attackers had stormed the al-Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abd, and then detonated an explosive device.
Three police officers, cited by the Associated Press but wishing to remain anonymous, said that four men who had arrived in off-road vehicles opened fire on worshippers during the sermon.
The AFP reports eyewitness and officials describing a bomb going off in the mosque and gunman waiting outside to shoot people trying to flee.
MENA also said a state of emergency had been declared in Sinai, while Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared three days of mourning for the victims of the blast.
There has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the violence, but the multi-pronged style of the attack bore the hallmarks of jihadi groups affiliated with ISIS and al-Qaeda.
The mosque was said to belong to the mystical Sufi school of Islam that is considered blasphemous by extremists including ISIS and the Wahhabi school of Islam propagated by neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The privately run Extra News TV said that Sisi will chair a security meeting following the attack.
President Trump was quick to condemn the attack as “cowardly.”
John Casson, the British Ambassador to Egypt, said he was “disgusted” by the attack on Twitter.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II condemned the massacre as “heinous” and said Jordan “stands alongside Egypt to combat terrorism which threatens everyone,” according to MENA. Representatives from Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also extended condolences.
Egypt’s North Sinai has been a conflict zone off limits to journalists and other independent observers for several years.
The Egyptian army has been fighting an on-and-off war against insurgents and Bedouin tribes in the region for decades. The conflict tapered off after the 2011 uprising that brought down longtime President Hosni Mubarak, but gathered steam after the 2013 coup that toppled the Islamist president and brought Sisi to power.
Militants, including ISIS’s local affiliate, have carried out a relentless wave of attacks in Sinai since the coup, killing hundreds of soldiers, police, and civilians. They have also occasionally targeted religious minorities, including Egyptian Coptic Christians.
Egypt’s armed forces have been accused of grave human rights violations that have exacerbated tensions between locals and the Cairo government.
The attack taking place in the village of Bir-Abed, considerably beyond Sinai’s main zone of conflict and ISIS’s main arena of influence, showed disturbing novelties.
“If this is ISIS, this was an attempt to disrupt the safety and security of Egyptian citizens well outside of the area where it usually operates,” said Zack Gold, a Sinai expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
Gold said the attack was likely meant to terrorize religious minorities as well as undermine the authority of the Egyptian state. North Sinai has been under a state of emergency — with heavy-handed checkpoints and extraordinary powers granted to security forces — for several years. An attack like this signals that the draconian measures have inconvenienced people without improving security.
“Most islamic State attacks have two purposes — either to show the power and authority of the group, or lack of control of legitimate authorities,” he said in a phone interview. “An attack of this nature says that you are not safe, the Egyptian state cannot keep you safe.”