x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 November 2017

More than 50 Egyptian policemen killed in clashes with extremists

Security forces hunting militants in the Western Desert were ambushed late on Friday 

A picture taken on October 18, 2017, from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing from Egypt's North Sinai. Said Khatib / AFP
A picture taken on October 18, 2017, from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing from Egypt's North Sinai. Said Khatib / AFP

At least 50 Egyptian policemen were killed in ambush by militants in the Western Desert, security sources said on Saturday, as the toll from the clashes rose overnight.

The security forces were attacked late on Friday on a road to the Bahariya oasis, some 200 kilometres south-east of Cairo, as they were hunting down extremist militants in the region, the interior ministry said.

Two police contingents were taking part in an operation to attack a suspected militant hideout when one of the patrols came under fire from heavy weapons, the ministry said.

Sixteen police were killed from that part of the operation and 13 others were wounded, it said, while at least 15 militants were also killed in the gun fight.

"As soon as the first mission approached the location of the terrorist elements, they sensed the arrival of the forces and targeted them using heavy weapons from all directions," the ministry said.

The ministry statement did not give details of any casualties in the other police patrol.

One security source said the convoy was attacked from higher ground by militants firing rocket-propelled grenades and detonating explosive devices on the ground.

The UAE condemned the attack and offered condolences to the Egyptian government and people.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash said the UAE stood with the Egyptian government's efforts to counter terrorism that undermined the country's security.

Security has been a key concern for Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Most of the fighting between militants and security forces so far has been in northern Sinai, where an ISIL affiliate operates.

No group claimed responsibility for Friday's attack but security sources earlier said the police had been hunting a hideout of the Hasam Movement, an extremist militant group blamed for attacks on judges and police around the capital.

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That group has only carried out mostly small operations since it emerged last year. Egyptian authorities say it is the armed militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed in 2013. Most of its leadership has been jailed in a crackdown under Mr El Sisi, a former army chief who was elected in 2014 after leading the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood the previous year.

Since Mr El Sisi came to power, hundreds of troops and police have been killed in often sophisticated attacks by militants in the northern Sinai region, where the Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis insurgent group pledged allegiance to ISIL in 2014.

Last Sunday, at least 24 militants and six soldiers were killed in attacks on military outposts in North Sinai, when more than 100 militants repeatedly attacked security outposts south of the border town of Sheikh Zuweid.

Attacks have mostly hit police and armed forces, but extremist militants have also extended their campaign outside the Sinai, targeting Christians with bomb attacks on churches in Cairo and other cities.