At least 70 people were killed in coordinated attacks by armed militants on five checkpoints in Sheikh Zuwayed, North Sinai, on Wednesday morning, according to medical sources in Arish.
AFP news agency reported the number of casualties had reached 74 by the end of the day, including 36 security forces and 38 militants, but the reported death toll varied considerably throughout Wednesday.
Military spokesperson Mohamed Samir reported in the morning that 70 militants attacked five checkpoints in North Sinai, killing 10 soldiers and 22 attackers.
However, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported 60 deaths and Sky News 70 early in the day, suggesting the official death toll was likely to rise.
The Armed Forces issued a statement on Wednesday evening saying militants had attacked several checkpoints in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah in North Sinai, using car bombs and heavy weaponry.
The statement added that the Armed Forces, along with the Air Forces, engaged the attackers, killing 100 militants and injuring many others. The military also destroyed 20 cars allegedly used in the attack, the statement added.
According to the Armed Forces, 17 military personnel were killed in Wednesday’s attacks, including four officers. An additional 16 were injured.
“The military is determined to eradicate black terrorism from the Sinai Peninsula,” the statement asserted.
Wide discrepancies in the death tolls reported by state-owned and independently owned media, health sources and the Armed Forces, as well as regular updates from the military spokesperson detailing the state’s alleged progress on Wednesday in countering the attacks, raises several questions as to who is paying the greater cost and who is in control of the narrative in Sinai.
Phonelines were down in the area for much of the day, making reaching eyewitnesses and civilians in the area to verify reports and assess the impact of the conflict on residents extremely difficult.
A medical source in Arish told Mada Masr that the attacks started at 6 am, when militants used a number of car bombs and hand held explosives on military checkpoints. Witnesses said armed men were seen stealing military equipment from the attack sites.
Security sources told Mada Masr that militants had also planted explosives along the military road to prevent Armed Forces from accessing ammunition.
Health sources in North Sinai reported that ambulances were refusing to leave hospitals on Wednesday afternoon after several were shot at in ongoing clashes.
A statement, branded as published by Province of Sinai (an offshoot from Ansar Beit al-Maqdes), circulated on various social media accounts, alledging the militant group’s responsibility for the attack.
According to the statement, Province of Sinai targeted 15 military checkpoints simultaneously, including three suicide attacks. Targets included the police club in Arish and the Abu Refai and Sedra checkpoints in Sheikh Zuwayed. A number of other checkpoints were attacked with heavy artillery and militants gathered ammunition from the sites of the attacks.
A source that met recently with militants in North Sinai told Mada Masr that the main source of weapons for attackers is the spoils they take from previous attack sites, as restrictions on arms trading have intensified in recent months.
A second statement, also allegedly by Province of Sinai, was circulated Wednesday afternoon on affiliated Twitter accounts, announcing further gains in terms of their attacks on military locations in North Sinai.
The statement claimed militants had surrounded the police station in Sheikh Zuwayed and exploded two military tanks near the Garada checkpoint on the Arish-Sheikh Zuwayed road. It also announced the targeting of four additional checkpoints and stated that attacks were ongoing.
The military spokesperson issued a second statement on his official Facebook page Wednesday afternoon announcing that a meeting point for the attackers was completely destroyed, leading to the death of 17 militants. The statement also said the number of casualties on both sides was rising.
He then issued a third statement less than an hour later, announcing that military forces had destroyed two more meeting points for militants.
Reinforcements and ammunition supplies arrived in North Sinai later on Wednesday, as clashes between the military and militants in Sheikh Zuwayed continued into the evening.
Security sources cited by Al-Masry Al-Youm said that dozens of military officers and soldiers were sent from neighbouring governorates to bolster the security presence. The source added that the synchronized attacks were executed with the help of terrorists coming from the Gaza Strip through underground, cross-border tunnels, despite previous claims by the government that the majority of these tunnels were destroyed in recent months.
A medical source meanwhile stated that the number of military and police fatalities had reached 70.
A military source told Al-Masry Al-Youm that a state of emergency was declared in the mIlitary hospital in Galaa military camp. Twenty-five emergency cases were sent to Maadi Military Hospital, the source added.
Health Ministry spokesperson Hossam Abdel Ghaffar told Mada Masr that hospitals in North Sinai are fully equipped to provide medical care for the injured.
“If we need any medical supplies, we will definitely issue a statement,” he said. “Right now we encourage people to donate blood.”
These deadly attacks come one day after the second anniversary of June 30, when mass popular protests were staged in 2013, leading to the ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi by the military on July 3.
Since then, the Armed Forces have been waging an intense crackdown on militant groups in North Sinai amid ongoing attacks on police and military personnel in the embattled peninsula, which have also spread to other parts of the country.
On Tuesday June 30, gunmen shot an Egyptian policeman outside a museum in Cairo. This occurred one day after the general prosecutor was assassinated when his convoy was attacked in the capital.
The last militant attack in Sinai of this scale took place in January, when militants attacked the central military unit in Arish, Battalion 101, resulting in 30 deaths.
In April, an explosion occurred in Arish Police Station, killing at least seven people.
In October 2014, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdes carried out an attack on the Karm al- Qawadees Checkpoint in Sheikh Zuwayed, killing 30 soldiers, marking the first attack with mass casualties on a military checkpoint since the state announced its ongoing military operation in Sinai in 2013.