Islamic militants on Monday ambushed two mini-buses carrying off-duty policemen in the northern region of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing 25 of them execution-style in a brazen daylight attack that deepens the turmoil roiling the country and underscores the volatility of the strategic region.
The killings, which took place near the border town of Rafah, came a day after 36 detainees were killed in clashes with security forces. In all, nearly 1,000 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi since last Wednesday.
Tensions between the sides have been high since the army ousted Morsi in a July 3 coup, following days of protests by millions of Egyptians demanding the Islamist president leave and accusing him of abusing his powers.
But Morsi’s supporters have fought back, staging demonstrations demanding that he be reinstated and denouncing the military coup.
On Wednesday, the military raided two protest camps of Morsi’s supporters in Cairo, killing hundreds of people and triggering the current wave of violence.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the country’s military chief, said Sunday that the crackdown, followed by a state of emergency and a nighttime curfew imposed in Cairo and several other flashpoint provinces, is needed to protect the country from “civil war.” El-Sissi has vowed the military would stand firm in the face of the rising violence but also called for the inclusion of Islamists in the post-Morsi political process.
Sinai, a strategic region bordering the Gaza Strip and Israel, has been witnessing almost daily attacks since Morsi’s ouster — leading many to link the militants there to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which Morsi hails.
Egyptian military and security forces have been engaged in a long-running battle against militants in the northern half of the peninsula.
Al-Qaida-linked fighters, some of whom consider Morsi’s Brotherhood to be too moderate, and tribesmen have used the area for smuggling and other criminal activity for years and have on occasion fired rockets into Israel and staged cross-border attacks. A year ago, 16 Egyptian border guards, a branch of the army, were slain in Sinai near the borders with Gaza and Israel in a yet unresolved attack that is widely blamed on militants.
In Monday’s attack, the militants forced the two vehicles to stop, ordered the policemen out and forced them to lie on the ground before shooting them, the officials said. The policemen were in civilian clothes, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which also left two policemen wounded.
The officials initially said the policemen were killed when the militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the two minibuses. Such confusion over details in the immediate aftermath of attacks is common. Egyptian state television also reported that the men were killed execution-style.