Gunmen kill 21 Egypt soldiers in checkpoint attack

The assault on Egyptian soldiers is considered to be one of the biggest since president Mohammed Mursi was ousted last year

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Gunmen killed 21 Egyptian soldiers on Saturday during an attack on a border checkpoint in Egypt’s western desert region near Libya, a military statement said, in one of the most deadly attacks since Islamist President Mohammad Mursi’s ouster last year.

The attack took place in the western desert governorate of Wadi al-Gedid, on the Farafra Oasis Road, located close to both Libya's and Sudan's border.

Three of the attackers, who took the checkpoint by surprise, were killed during ensuing clashes with the guards, military officials said.

Egypt declared a state of emergency on its border with Sudan, a few hours following the attack, a security source at the Red Sea security directorate said, reported Egypt’s state-owned daily al-Ahram on Saturday.

In protective measures, authorities placed several security ambushes on main and narrow streets, and imposed tightened security measures in ports and airports of the province.

Around 20 smugglers, said to be linked to al-Qaeda, used guns and rocket-propelled grenades to carry out the offense, highlighting a growing security challenge for authorities, who believe Islamist militants have been moving weapons across the area.

Tribal smugglers told Reuters they charge up to $140,000 to move weapons in vehicles along desert routes to comrades in Egypt, which faces an Islamist insurgency centralized in the Sinai Peninsula near Israel.

Egypt’s state television announced three days of mourning for the victims of the assault.

“We stopped airing TV series on several satellite channels, on the state television, private sector’s specialized channels, and the regional channels,” state-owned Egyptian TV chief Magdy Lashin told Egypt’s Youm7 website.

Instead of the series and normal programming, the channels will air excerpts of national songs and documentaries highlighting the achievements of Egyptian soldiers, and the military, according to Lashin.

Egypt’s presidency and the interior ministry released a statement mourning the victims of the attack, and confirmed that the culprits will be punished by law, adding that terrorism will be rooted out from all of the country.

“Egypt will not forget its martyrs who have sacrificed their lives for it,” the presidency’s statement concluded.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattal al-Sisi had reportedly expressed concerns that the militants who caused chaos in Libya are setting up operations along the borders, which poses a threat to Cairo’s government.

Libyan officials have long said that they know about security problems along the border, and that they cooperate with Egyptian authorities.

A few days before he was elected as Egypt’s president in May, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi discreetly visited tribesmen living along the border with Libya.

But security officials say militants based alongside the Libyan border have similar ambitions to those of ISIS. They want to topple Sisi and create an Islamic caliphate in Egypt.

The Egyptian army arrested one of the assailants involved in the attack, and is currently questioning him, a top military official said, reported al-Watan news website.

The source added that a military funeral would take place tomorrow at the Almaza Military Airport, before delivering the bodies of the killed soldiers to their families.

(With AFP, AP and Reuters)

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