CAIRO: Egypt on Saturday mourned 235 worshippers killed in a gun and bomb assault on a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula, where warplanes struck militant hideouts in retaliation for the country’s deadliest attack in recent memory.
Special prayers were planned nationwide a day after gunmen detonated a bomb and mowed down worshippers fleeing the Rawda mosque in North Sinai, where security forces are battling Islamic State group (IS) jihadists.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared three days of mourning and vowed to “respond with brutal force” to the attack, among the deadliest in the world since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
“The army and police will avenge our martyrs and return security and stability with force in the coming short period,” he said in a televised speech.
Hours later Egyptian air force jets destroyed vehicles used in the attack and “terrorist” locations where weapons and ammunition were stocked, an army spokesman said.
The state prosecutor’s office said in a statement that 235 people were killed and 109 wounded in the assault on the mosque roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish.
Witnesses said the attackers blocked routes to the site using vehicles which they set alight.
Between 10 and 20 armed attackers were involved, Magdy Rizk, who was among the wounded, told AFP.
“They were wearing masks and military uniforms,” he said, adding that people living in the area had previously received threats from extremist groups.
Agence France-Presse photographs of the scene indicated that children were among the dead.
Relatives visited victims in hospital in the city of Ismailia near the Suez Canal where the wounded were taken for treatment, an AFP photographer reported.
The funerals of some of those killed were due to be held on Saturday.
World leaders voiced outrage at the attack. US President Donald Trump denounced on Twitter the “horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenseless worshippers”.
Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest institution of Sunni Islam, condemned “in the strongest terms this barbaric terrorist attack”.
IS targeting Sufis
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bloodshed.
The Egypt branch of IS has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, and also civilians accused of working with the authorities, in attacks in the north of the Sinai peninsula.
They have also targeted followers of the mystical Sufi branch of Sunni Islam as well as Christians.
A tribal leader and head of a Bedouin militia that fights IS told Agence France-Presse that the mosque is known as a place where Sufis gather.
IS views Sufis as heretics for seeking the intercession of saints.
The group has also killed more than 100 Christians in church bombings and shootings in Sinai and other parts of Egypt, forcing many to flee the peninsula.
The military has struggled to quell the jihadists who pledged allegiance to IS in November 2014.
The jihadists have since increasingly turned to civilian targets, attacking not only Christians and Sufis but also Bedouin Sinai inhabitants accused of working with the army.
The group also claimed the bombing of a Russian plane that killed all 224 people on board after takeoff from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on October 31, 2015.
Aside from IS, Egypt also faces a threat from Al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists who operate out of neighbouring Libya.
A group calling itself “Ansar al-Islam” – “Supporters of Islam” in Arabic – claimed an October ambush in Egypt’s Western Desert that killed at least 16 policemen.
The military later conducted air strikes on the attackers, killing their leader.