Egypt mosque attack leaves at least 305 dead in North Sinai

The death toll in a devastating militant attack on a mosque on Friday in Egypt's North Sinai has risen to 305 killed, including 27 children, and 128 more people were wounded, MENA state news agency said on Saturday.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault, but since 2013 Egyptian security forces have battled an Islamic State affiliate in the mainly desert region, and militants have killed hundreds of police and soldiers.

State media showed images of bloodied victims and bodies covered in blankets inside the Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, west of El Arish, the main city in North Sinai.

Photos from the horrific scene: 

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At least 305 people killed in attack on mosque in Egypt
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At least 305 people killed in attack on mosque in Egypt
View of the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, after a gun and bombing attack, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians gather around bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians walk past bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians walk past bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians walk past bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians gather outside the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, following a gun and bombing attack, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: People gather at the site of the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Security forces take security measures at the site of the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: A damaged car at the site of the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: People gather at the site of the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is seen during a meeting with government members on the attack in North Sinai, in Cairo, Egypt, November 24, 2017 in this handout picture courtesy of the Egyptian Presidency. The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY Empty shells and blood stains from victims are seen after an explosion at Al Rawdah mosque in Bir Al-Abed, Egypt November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Soliman TEMPLATE OUT
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY An interior view of Al Rawdah mosque is seen after an explosion, in Bir Al-Abed, Egypt November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Soliman
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY??A wheelchair is seen near blood stains of victims after an explosion at Al Rawdah mosque in Bir Al-Abed, Egypt November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Soliman TEMPLATE OUT
Relatives of victims of the explosion at Al-Rawda mosque, sit outside Suez Canal University hospital in Ismailia, Egypt November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Relatives of the victims of the bomb and gun assault on the North Sinai Rawda mosque sit outside the Suez Canal University hospital in the eastern port city of Ismailia on November 25, 2017, where they were taken to receive treatment following the deadly attack the day before. Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vowed on November 24 to respond forcefully after the attackers killed at least 235 worshippers in the packed mosque in restive North Sinai province, the country's deadliest attack in recent memory. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (Photo credit should read MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
The Eiffel Tower is pictured in Paris before switching off lights on November 24, 2017 in tribute to the victims of the deadly attack on a mosque in Egypt's Sinai. Armed attackers on November 24, 2017 killed at least 235 worshippers in a bomb and gun assault on a packed mosque in Egypt's restive North Sinai province, in the country's deadliest attack in recent memory. / AFP PHOTO / Thomas SAMSON (Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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Worshippers were finishing Friday prayers at the mosque when a bomb exploded, witnesses said. Around 40 gunmen set up positions outside the mosque with jeeps and opened fire from different directions as people tried to escape.

"Four groups of armed men attacked the worshippers inside the mosque after Friday noon prayers. Two groups were firing at ambulances to deter them, said Mohamed, a witness.

The public prosecutors' office said in a statement 235 people had been killed and 109 more wounded.

Hours after the attack, Egypt's military launched air strikes on targets in mountainous areas around Bir al-Abed, destroying vehicles and hideouts associated with the attack, the army said without giving numbers of militants killed.

"The armed forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and restore security and stability with the utmost force," Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a televised address.

"What is happening is an attempt to stop us from our efforts in the fight against terrorism, to destroy our efforts to stop the terrible criminal plan that aims to destroy what is left of our region."

Striking at a mosque would be a shift in tactics for the Sinai militants, who have usually attacked troops and police and Christian churches.

Arabiya news channel and some local sources said some of the worshippers were Sufis, whom groups such as Islamic State consider targets because they revere saints and shrines, which for Islamists is tantamount to idolatry.

The jihadists have also attacked local tribes and their militias for working with the army and police, branding them traitors.

Islamic State earlier this year posted a video of the beheading of two Sufis in northern Sinai, accusing them of practicing "sorcery."

SINAI BRANCH

The Sinai branch is one of Islamic State's surviving branches following the collapse of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq after military defeats by U.S.-backed forces.

Sisi, a former armed forces commander who presents himself as a bulwark against Islamist militancy, convened an emergency meeting with his defense and interior ministers and intelligence chief soon after the attack.

Security has long been one of the key sources of public support for the former general, who is expected to run for re-election early next year for another four-year term.

U.S. President Donald Trump, in a post on Twitter on Friday, called the assault a "horrible and cowardly terrorist attack."

"The world cannot tolerate terrorism, we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence," he added.

Trump later called Sisi to express his condolences and said the United States "stands by Egypt's side in its fight against terrorism and is ready to strengthen cooperation with Egypt in this field," according to a statement from Sisi's office.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also condemned the attack and expressed solidarity with Egypt.

SINAI STRUGGLE

Egypt later said it would delay the opening of the Rafah border crossing to Gaza after the attack due to security concerns. The crossing had been due to open for three days beginning on Saturday.

North Sinai, which stretches from the Suez Canal eastwards to the Gaza Strip and Israel, has long been a security headache for Egyptian security forces because of smuggling.

Sisi has support from some Bedouin tribal leaders, who have helped the army locate weapon-smuggling routes used by jihadi groups, security officials said.

Local militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, once allied to al Qaeda, split from it and declared allegiance to Islamic State in 2014.

Bloodshed in the Sinai worsened after 2013 when Sisi led the overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In July this year, at least 23 soldiers were killed when suicide car bombs hit two military checkpoints in the Sinai, in an attack claimed by Islamic State.

Militants have tried to expand their operations into Egypt's heavily populated mainland, hitting Coptic Christian churches and pilgrims. In May, gunmen attacked a Coptic group traveling to a monastery in southern Egypt, killing 29. (Additional reporting by Mohamed Abdellah and Eric Knecht in Cairo and Yousri Mohamed in Ismalia; Editing by Andrew Roche and Cynthia Osterman)

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