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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Egypt mosque attack: 27 children among the hundreds dead

Survivors tell how the murderers checked bodies for signs of life before finishing them off and president Abdel Fattah El Sisi promises to respond with "brute force"

Inside the Al Rawdah mosque,  Bir Al-Abed, Egypt, where extremists killed 305 worshippers, including 27 children. Mohamed Soliman / Reuters
Inside the Al Rawdah mosque, Bir Al-Abed, Egypt, where extremists killed 305 worshippers, including 27 children. Mohamed Soliman / Reuters

Horrific accounts of the murderous but methodical perpetrators of the massacre at a mosque in North Sinai emerged on Saturday from survivors of what is now the deadliest terrorist attack to occur on Egyptian soil.

Egypt's military responded with the "brute force" promised by president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, sending in air strikes on believed terrorist hideouts as the death toll from the attack rose from 235 to 305.

Chief prosecutor Nabil Sadeq said the victims included 27 children. A further 128 people were injured in the attack on the Rawdah mosque in Bir Al Abd in the northern Sinai.

"Egypt faces terrorism on behalf of the entire world," the president said after an emergency meeting with his security chiefs. "The army and police will avenge our martyrs and return security and stability with force in the coming short period."

Residents of the small town of Rawdah collected their dead from the mosque, 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El Arish.

According to recent census figures, about 2,500 people lived in Rawdah. Friday's massacre killed more than a tenth of the population and a high proportion of the men and boys. The tightly knit community is comprised mostly of members of the Sawarka Bedouin tribe who spiritually often affiliate with the mystical Gaririya Sufi order.

Survivors told of how the attackers came in five SUVs and took positions facing the door and windows of the mosque. As the imam was about to deliver his Friday sermon to the 500 or so worshippers, the killers tossed in grenades and opened fire. The blasts shook the mosque and those inside screamed in pain. A stampede broke out in the rush towards a door leading to the washrooms. Others tried desperately to force their way out of the windows.

When the violence finally stopped 128 injured lay among the dead, in agony from their wounds.

Survivors spoke of children screaming as they saw parents and older brothers mowed down by gunfire or shredded by the blasts. Some families lost all or most male members in the massacre.

The militants methodically checked their victims for any sign of life after the initial round of blazing gunfire. Those still moving or breathing received a bullet to the head or the chest, the witnesses said. When the ambulances arrived the militants shot at them as they got back into their SUVs and fled.

Mr Sadeq said there were between 25 and 30 attackers. Some were masked and those who were not had heavy beards and long hair. They wore military-style camouflage trousers and black T-shirts, and one of them carried a black banner that matched those carried by ISIL. The group has not claimed responsibility for the attack.

They also torched seven cars parked outside the mosque that belonged to worshippers, Mr Sadeq said.

"We knew that the mosque was under attack by militants," said witness Ebid Salem Mansour, recalling the intense gunfire. Mr Mansour, 38, who works in a nearby salt factory, said he had settled in Bir Al Abd three years ago to escape the bloodshed and fighting elsewhere in North Sinai. He suffered two gunshot wounds to his legs on Friday.

"Everyone lay down on the floor and kept their heads down. If you raised your head you got shot," he said. "The shooting was random and hysterical at the beginning and then became more deliberate. Whoever they weren't sure was dead or still breathing was shot dead."

The militants fired at the worshippers and the children were screaming, Mr Mansour said. "I knew I was injured but I was in a situation that was much scarier than being wounded. I was only seconds away from a certain death." As the shooting went on, many recited their final prayers.

The modest Bir Al Abd Hospital close to Rawdah quickly ran out of beds and most of the survivors were transferred to medical centres in Ismailia, the area's largest city.

Egyptian state television broadcast bedside interviews from an Ismailia hospital as Egypt’s Red Crescent put out a public appeal for blood donations.

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Read more:

A timeline of terror in Egypt

Tunisian and Egyptian tourism rebounds from adversity

Egypt says three high-level militants killed in Sinai

Egypt's ISIL affiliate kills 10 people in Sinai convoy attack

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"My eldest son is gone,” cried a man in his 50s named Magdy. “After the shooting stopped he tried to stand up and then just fell over and died.”

Magdy said the attackers trained their fire deliberately at anyone trying to flee.

Security forces pursued the attackers and their vehicles with drones and jet aircraft, killing 15 of the attackers in the Risha desert area close to Rawdah.

Army spokesman Tamer El Refaie said forces of the interior ministry were co-ordinating with the air force on Friday night to comb the area for the remaining attackers, while extra forces had been sent to the Rafah border crossing with Gaza.

Egyptian authorities closed the crossing, dashing the hopes of Palestinians waiting to pass in and out of blockaded Gaza. Rafah has been open for just 17 days since January with nearly 30,000 Palestinians, including those seeking medical treatment, waiting for permission to leave the territory.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyah called the head of Egypt's intelligence service, Khaled Fawzy‎, on Friday to offer his condolences.The assault is likely to lead to further delays in the Cairo-brokered Palestinian reconciliation talks that ended on Wednesday without a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, it was still unclear on Saturday if Rawdah was targeted more for security or sectarian reasons. Last week, ISIL’s “Sinai Province” Egyptian affiliate, published online directives to villagers to stop performing Sufi rituals. Two Sufi sheikhs were kidnapped and killed last year by members of the extremist group.

But referring to he Rawdah mosque as a Sufi mosque is wrong, said Amro Ali, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo.

"It gives the impression that only Sufis worship in it,” he said. "Terrorists want to define a 'type' of mosque for public consumption. Most Sufis are Sunnis and most Sunnis are influenced by Sufism.”

Egyptian officials also doubt the attack was sectarian in nature.

“The real target is neither a political regime or a particular sector of society,” said Diaa Rashwan, chairman of Egypt’s state information service. “The target is the Egyptian people, their security, stability, livelihood and unity.”