Egypt in major standoff with IS after militants occupy Sinai villages

Egypt in major standoff with IS after militants occupy Sinai villages
Wilayat Sinai, Egypt's Islamic State group affiliate, has occupied four villages in the north of the Sinai peninsula for nearly a week.
4 min read
28 July, 2020
At least one civilian has been killed in the crossfire [Getty]
The Egyptian military is embroiled in a deadly standoff with Islamic State group militants in the Sinai peninsula, with at least three soldiers killed and dozens of civilians displaced after the insurgents occupied four villages last week.

Wilayat Sinai, Egypt's IS affiliate, seized control of four villages near the city of Bir Al-Abd in the North Sinai governorate.

Bir Al-Abd was the site of the deadliest extremist attack in the country's history, when Wilayat Sinai militants in 2017 stormed a Sufi mosque killing 311 worshippers.

The offensive came shortly after Cairo said it had foiled a "terrorist" nearby attack, killing 18 militants.

Improvised explosived devices (IEDs) and mines placed at strategic points around the villages have impeded the military's ability to drive out the militants, Mada Masr reported.

The military has since resorted to aerial bombardments to tackle the insurgents, a decision that could result in a number of civilian casualties.

The air force launched on Monday more than 25 strikes targeting insurgent positions in the villages, eyewitnesses and local tribal sources told The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site.

Earlier attempts at a ground offensive to rout the Wilayat Sinai fighters resulted in a number of casualties, the sources added.

While the airstrikes have not yet resulted in any reported civilian casualties they have destroyed a medical clinic and a number of homes, the sources said.

Inside Bir Al-Abd, the militants shot dead a military officer on Monday, medical sources told The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site.

Conflicting accounts

The death was not the first military casualty over the past week.

Before occupying the villages, Wilayat Sinai insurgents launched an attack on a military camp in the Rabaa village on Tuesday last week.

The militants reportedly detonated two booby-trapped vehicles and fired anti-tank shells at the military that resulted in intense clashes and airstrikes on IS positions.

In a statement on Tuesday, the military said it had "foiled" an attack on a military post in the area and killed 18 militants.

Two army personnel were killed and four others injured during the attack, the military said without giving any details about civilian casualties. 

Local sources have thrown doubt on those figures, suggesting the military death toll could be higher and that a number of civilians were killed during the clashes and bombardment. One civilian was caught in the crossfire and killed, locals said.

Wilayat Sinai claimed to have killed 40 soldiers during the attack.

The occupation

Last week's attack on Rabaa may have been an attempt to distract the military and deplete its resources in preparation for the occupation of the nearby villages, Sinai expert Mohannad Sabry suggested in a tweet on Monday.

Eyewitnesses told Mada Masr that the occupation of the villages began on Tuesday, around the same time as the assault on the Rabaa military camp.

After entering the village, the insurgents raised the notorious black IS flag in place of the Egyptian one and planted explosive devices at the entrance to the villages, locals said.

The extremist militants initially tried to win over residents by distributing food and sweets, witnesses said.

The Wilayat Sinai fighters told the villagers that their fight was not with them, but with the military, and that they should go about their lives as they pleased.

Crucially, though, the militants told a group of young people in one of the villages to stop smoking - a practice considered impermissible by the extremist group.

Soon after, however, the insurgents began setting up checkpoints and booby traps throughout the villages, prompting dozens to flee to area.

IEDs planted by the militants have injured at least five civilians so far, eyewitnesses told Mada Masr.

The IS fighters also took part in looting, locals said, seizing a number of vehicles and the contents of several stores.

Militants have waged an insurgency in the Sinai peninsula against the Egyptian state since 2011. The conflict intensified after President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi seized power in a 2013 military coup, overthrowing Egypt's first democratically-elected government.

Human rights groups have accused both the militants and the government of severe human rights violations, saying that the Egyptian army has killed civilians in its campaign against the IS-affiliated group.

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