Gunmen in Egypt mosque attack carried Islamic State flag, prosecutor says

CAIRO (Reuters) - Gunmen who attacked a mosque on Friday in Egypt's North Sinai brandished an Islamic State flag as they opened fire through doorways and windows, killing more than 300 worshippers, including two dozen children, officials said on Saturday.

No group has claimed responsibility, but Egyptian forces are battling a stubborn Islamic State affiliate in the region, one of the surviving branches of the militant group after it suffered defeats by U.S.-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.

The assault on a mosque has stunned Egyptians, prompting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government to tighten security at places of worship and key buildings, and call three days of mourning for the bloodiest attack in Egypt's modern history.

State news agency MENA said the death toll had risen to 305, including 27 children, and 128 people were injured.

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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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Egypt's public prosecutor's office, citing interviews with wounded survivors as part of its investigation, linked Islamic State militants, also known as Daesh, to the attack on the Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, west of El-Arish city.

"The worshippers were taken by surprise by these elements," the prosecutor said in a statement. "They numbered between 25 and 30, carrying the Daesh flag and took up positions in front of the mosque door and its 12 windows with automatic rifles."

The gunmen, some wearing masks and military-style uniforms, had arrived in jeeps, surrounded the mosque and opened fire inside, sending panicked worshippers scrambling over each other to escape the carnage.

Witnesses had said gunmen set off a bomb at the end of Friday prayers and then opened fire as people tried to flee, shooting at ambulances and setting fire to cars to block roads. Images on state media showed bloodied victims and bodies covered in blankets inside the mosque.

"When the shooting began everyone was running, and everyone was bumping into one another," Magdy Rezk, a wounded survivor, said from his hospital bed. "But I was able to make out masked men wearing military clothing."

UTMOST FORCE

Striking a mosque would be a shift in tactics for the Sinai militants, who have previously attacked troops and police and more recently tried to spread their insurgency to the mainland by hitting Christian churches and pilgrims.

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. Islamic State has targeted Sufi and Shi'ite Muslims in other countries like Iraq.

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ISIS jails hidden in plain sight in Mosul
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ISIS jails hidden in plain sight in Mosul
Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division stand outside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division stands inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A coffee mug is seen on a table at a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A steel gate leads to a section of a compound used as prison for men inside a building abandoned by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division searches through a desk inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Clothing left behind by Islamic State militants is seen on the floor in a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Rotten food is seen on a kitchen table inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The photo of an unidentified girl is seen on a desk inside a compound used as prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mattresses of prisoners are seen inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Documents and envelopes are scattered inside an office, at a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Damaged surveillance monitors are seen in the control room in a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Materials for making self-made bombs are seen on the floor inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen in a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division holds a self-made bomb found inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division inspect the cables of the surveillance system inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division inspects a room used as a cell for women inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen as he opens a steel gate to a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
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The jihadists in Egypt's Sinai have also attacked local tribes and their militias for working with the army and police.

Sisi, a former armed forces commander who supporters see as a bulwark against Islamist militants, promised the "utmost force" against those responsible for Friday's attack. Security has been a key reason for his supporters to back him, and he is expected to run for re-election next year.

Egypt's military carried out air strikes and raids overnight to target hideouts and vehicles involved in the attack, the army said, without giving details on the number of militants.

"What is happening is an attempt to stop us from our efforts in the fight against terrorism," Sisi said on Friday.

The Sinai attack came as Sisi's government looks to draw more foreign investment and finish an IMF reform program to help revive an economy that struggled through instability after the 2011 uprising ousted long-standing leader Hosni Mubarak.

North Sinai, a mostly desert area stretching from the Suez Canal eastwards to the Gaza Strip and Israel, has long been a security headache for Egypt and is a strategic region for Cairo because of its sensitive borders.

Local militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, once allied to al Qaeda, split from it and declared allegiance to Islamic State in 2014. But attacks in the Sinai worsened after 2013 when Sisi led the overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood after mass protests against his rule.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Alexander Smith and Jeremy Gaunt)

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