Egypt's armed forces said that at least 100 militants and 17 soldiers had been killed in a wave of attacks on military checkpoints in the Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s branch in Egypt.
The statement, which was aired on state television, said 17 soldiers, including four officers, were killed. Thirteen soldiers were also wounded.
The attack is considered one of the biggest militant strikes in Egypt's modern history.
Earlier on Wednesday, Egyptian army F-16 jets and Apache helicopters struck ISIS positions in the town of Sheikh Zuweid that lies within the Sinai Peninsula, a strategic area located between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.
Militants have reportedly taken up positions on rooftops and mined streets leading to the town’s police station to prevent forces from leaving, according to Al Arabiya News Channel and Agence France-Presse.
The army said five checkpoints were attacked by about 70 militants and that soldiers had destroyed three landcruisers fitted with anti-aircraft guns.
Clashes between militants and soldiers have been going for more than eight hours, marking the biggest onslaught yet.
(Egypt Army spokesman, via AP)
ISIS’ Egyptian affiliate, Sinai Province, claimed responsibility for the Sinai attacks in a Twitter statement.
“In a blessed raid enabled by God, the lions of the caliphate have simultaneously attacked more than 15 checkpoints belonging to the apostate army,” the group said in a statement posted on social media websites.
ISIS had urged its followers to escalate attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan which started in mid-June, though it did not specify Egypt as a target.
Security sources speaking to Reuters said the militants had planned to lay siege to Sheikh Zuweid town, where most of the fighting has been concentrated, by hitting all army checkpoints simultaneously.
Witnesses and security sources also reported hearing two explosions in the nearby town of Rafah, which borders Gaza. The sources said all roads leading to Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid were shut down and residents were staying in their homes.
In late April, the army extended by three months a state of emergency imposed in parts of Sinai.
The army has taken several measures to crush the insurgency. Aside from bombardments in the region, they have destroyed tunnels into the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip and created a security buffer zone in northern Sinai.
The army was also digging a trench along the border with Gaza in an effort to prevent smuggling.
The measures have stoked resentment among some residents, who say they rely on the smuggling trade through the tunnels and complain of neglect by the state.
The attacks come just two days after the assassination in Cairo of the country's prosecutor-general Hesham Barakat.
Militant attackes in northern Sinai have been stepped up following the July 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi.
In Cairo, security forces stormed an apartment in a western suburb and killed nine men whom they said were armed, security sources said.
The sources said authorities received information the group was planning to carry out an attack. Among those dead was Nasser al-Hafi, a prominent lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood and a former lawmaker. The Brotherhood denied the group was armed.
(with agencies)SHOW MORE