Egypt reeling from attack on mosque in Sinai that killed 305

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt was reeling Sunday from the horrific militant attack on a mosque in northern Sinai that killed 305 people two days earlier — the deadliest assault by Islamic extremists in its modern history and a grim milestone in a long-running fight against the insurgency led by an Islamic State affiliate.

Survivors and Egypt’s top prosecutor have given accounts of the massacre that unfolded as more than two dozen assailants, carrying a black IS banner, unleashed gunfire and explosions during Friday prayers at the Al-Rawdah Mosque in a sleepy village by the same name near the small town of Bir al-Abd.

The attackers arrived in five SUVs, took positions across from the mosque’s door and windows, and just as the imam was about to deliver his sermon from the pulpit, they opened fire and tossed grenades at the estimated 500 people inside.

The worshippers screamed and cried out in pain. A stampede broke out in the rush toward a door leading to the washrooms. Others tried desperately to force their way out of the windows. Those who survived spoke of children screaming as they saw parents and siblings mowed down by gunfire or shredded by the blasts.

When the violence finally stopped, 305 people, including 27 children, had been killed and 128 wounded.

One of the witnesses, Ebid Salem Mansour, recalled how the attackers shouted Allahu Akbar, or God is great, as they fired on the worshippers.

So composed were the militants that they 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 they shot at them, repelling them as they got back into their vehicles and fled.

Friday’s attack targeted a mosque frequented by Sufis, members of a mystic movement within Islam. Islamic militants, including IS, consider Sufis heretics because of their less literal interpretations of the faith.

Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, said the attackers, some masked, numbered between 25 and 30. Those with bare faces sported heavy beards and long hair, his statement added. Clad in military-style camouflage pants and black T-shirts, one of them carried a black banner with the declaration of the Muslim faith — there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.

Despite the banner, IS still has not claimed responsibility for the attack.

Survivors of the bloodshed spoke to The Associated Press on Saturday in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, where some of the wounded are hospitalized.

“We knew that the mosque was under attack,” said Mansour, a 38-year-old worker in a nearby salt factory who had settled in Bir al-Abd three years ago to escape the bloodshed and fighting elsewhere in northern 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 get 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.”

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed that the attack “will not go unpunished” and that Egypt would persevere with its war on terrorism. He did not specify what new steps might be taken. On Saturday, he ordered that a mausoleum be built in memory of the victims of Friday’s attack and cancelled a visit to the Gulf Sultanate of Oman that was scheduled for next week.

Egypt’s military and security forces have already been waging a tough and costly campaign against militants in the towns, villages and desert mountains of northern Sinai, and Egypt has been in a state of emergency since April. Across the country, thousands have been arrested in a crackdown on suspected Islamists as well as against other dissenters and critics, raising concerns about human rights violations.

Seeking to spread the violence, militants over the past year have carried out deadly bombings on churches in the capital of Cairo and other cities, killing dozens of Christians. Egypt’s IS affiliate has also claimed responsibility for the 2016 downing of a Russian passenger jet that killed 224 people over Sinai. That attack decimated the country’s already ailing tourism industry.

Friday’s assault was the first major militant attack on a Muslim congregation, and it eclipsed past attacks, even dating back to a previous Islamic militant insurgency in the 1990s. The death of so many civilians in one day recalls the killing of at least 600 in August 2013, when Egyptian security forces broke up two sit-in protests in Cairo by supporters of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist president ousted by the military the previous month.

The local IS affiliate has targeted Sufis in the past. Last year, the militants beheaded a leading local Sufi figure, the blind sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz, and posted photos of the killing online. In the January edition of an IS online magazine, the Sinai affiliate vowed to target Sufis, accusing them of idolatry and heretical “innovation” in religion and warning that the group will “not permit (their) presence” in Sinai or Egypt.

Millions of Egyptians belong to Sufi orders, which hold sessions of ritual chanting and dancing to draw the faithful closer to God. Sufis also hold shrines containing the tombs of holy men in particular reverence.

Islamic militants stepped up their campaign of violence in northern Sinai after the military ousted the elected but divisive Morsi. Authorities followed up with a fierce crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group, jailing thousands.

The result has been a long, grinding conflict centered on el-Arish and nearby villages and towns in north Sinai. The militants have been unable to control territory, but the military and security forces have also been unable to bring security, as the extremists continuously carry out surprise attacks, mostly targeting outposts and convoys.