CAIRO // Suspected militants ambushed two mini-buses carrying off-duty policemen in Egypt's northern Sinai yesterday, killing 25 and wounding two, security officials said.
The killings near Rafah, which borders the Gaza Strip, compounded Egypt's woes a day after 36 prisoners were killed as they were being transferred to a north Cairo jail.
In the Sinai, militants forced the two vehicles carrying policemen in civilian clothes to stop, ordered the police out and forced them to lie on the ground before they shot them, the officials said.
There was initial confusion over how the ambush had happened and the officials at first said the policemen were killed when the militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the two minibuses.
Egyptian state television reported that the men were executed.
The Sinai region has been one of Egypt's most enduring security problems. Former president Hosni Mubarak presided over a period of relative calm but only thanks to the ruthless use of informants and a strong police presence.
Soon after the 2011 uprising, the peninsula exploded with violence. Unknown gunmen laid siege to police stations and bombed a natural gas pipeline supplying gas to Israel and Jordan more than a dozen times.
Just over a month after taking office in August 2012, Mohammed Morsi, too, was plagued by security problems in Sinai.
A group of masked men attacked a border outpost, killed 16 soldiers and stole an armoured personnel carrier. The gunmen were killed by Israeli security forces after driving across the border in a failed attempt to attack Israeli targets.
The attack was a sign of the huge divide between Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist extremists who believed in the importance of wielding violence against Israel.
Mr Morsi attempted a more subtle manoeuvre to calm Sinai. He asked the military to hold back on some operations and sent envoys, some of them former militants, to meet with Islamist groups in Sinai. It was unclear what results ever came of those negotiations, but attacks appeared to subside.
Soon after Mr Morsi was removed from office by a military coup, violence surged again in Sinai. The Egyptian army has claimed that Brotherhood supporters were driving the new round of attacks on government forces.
During a media briefing last month, a military spokesman, Col Ahmed Ali, showed a video where a prominent Brotherhood official told a TV reporter that the attacks in Sinai would stop if Mr Morsi was returned to office as proof of collusion between the Brotherhood and Sinai militants.
Insecurity in Sinai is a concern for the United States and Israel because the area lies next to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Early this month, Israel briefly closed its airport in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, next to the border with Sinai, in response to unspecified security warnings.
The next day, five men believed to be militants were killed in what Egyptian security officials said was an Israeli drone attack. The site of the strike was about five kilometres inside Egypt.
Israel has maintained official silence about the strike out of concerns about exposing Egypt's military to a possible public backlash over a strike on Egyptian soil.
Sunday's prison incident started when gunmen exchanged fire with guards of a convoy carrying more than 612 people detained in Cairo, the state-run Middle East News Agency said.
An earlier statement that the interior ministry posted on its website said the 36 detainees who died were Muslim Brotherhood members who had tried to escape while being transported to Abu Zaabal prison in Qalyubia province.
Authorities said the detainees were killed after police fired tear gas in a bid to free a police officer who had been taken hostage.
The conflicting accounts could not be immediately reconciled and the Brotherhood, the once-banned movement of which Mr Morsi was a member, held the police accountable.
* Bradley Hope contributed from Beirut