Militant attack kills and wounds 15 soldiers in Egypt's Sinai

The assault comes a day after three people, including a policeman, were wounded in an explosion in Cairo

Egyptian Army's soldiers fire artilleries during a launch of a major assault against militants in the troubled northern part of the Sinai peninsula in Al Arish, Egypt, in this undated handout picture made available by the Ministry of Defence, February 27, 2018. Ministry of Defence/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
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An attack on an army checkpoint in the northern Sinai Peninsula killed and wounded 15 Egyptian soldiers on Saturday, marking the deadliest assault against the security forces since the start of a major military operation there a year ago.

Military spokesman Col Tamer El Rifaai said soldiers at the checkpoint exchanged fire with the attackers, killing seven of them, and that forces were pursuing more of the suspects in the area.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s early morning attack, but it bore the hallmarks of ISIS, which is now leading the insurgency in rugged and largely remote northern Sinai.

A brief statement issued by Col El Rifaai did not give the location of the checkpoint or give a breakdown of the wounded and killed among the 15 casualties. He only said that they included an officer and soldiers of various ranks.

However, security officials, said the checkpoint was a few kilometres south the airport serving the coastal city of El Arish.

Unlike most previous attacks targeting checkpoints, the officials said, Saturday’s attack did not commence with a suicide car bombing or a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades.

Egypt’s security forces have battled militants in Sinai for years to quash an insurgency that become deadlier in recent years. Last February, Egypt launched a large-scale operation to eradicate the militants, throwing thousands of elite troops backed by fighter jets, helicopter gunships, tanks and naval vessels into the battle.

The operation significantly reduced the number of attacks and allowed the return of near-normal life in El Arish, northern Sinai’s largest city where militants once carried out assassinations, abducted critics, attacked members of the security forces, terrorised civilians and carried out robberies in broad daylight.

The militants have consistently failed to win and control territory in Sinai, unlike their counterparts in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces, with significant international backing, reduced ISIS to its last sliver of territory and the militants are expected to be overrun in the coming days.

But Saturday’s attack in Egypt, given the relatively high number of casualties, marks a setback to Egypt’s military effort in Sinai.

It has added significance because it came a day after a crude explosive device went off, wounding three people, including a policeman, in Cairo. The authorities blamed members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood for Friday’s attack.

In December, a roadside bomb exploded, hitting a tourist bus in Cairo near the renowned Giza pyramids, killing three Vietnamese tourists along with their Egyptian guide.

Ten other people were wounded.

Military forces are seen in North Sinai, Egypt, December 1, 2017. Picture taken December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Military forces are seen in North Sinai, Egypt, December 1, 2017. Reuters