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24 Nov, 2017 11:26

'They shot at ambulances': 235 dead, scores injured in bomb & gun attack at Sinai mosque (GRAPHIC)

Friday prayers at a mosque in Egypt took a tragic turn after a coordinated bomb and gun attack targeted worshippers, killing 235 people and injuring some 130 others. Ambulances transporting the wounded also came under attack by gunmen.

The blast at Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, northern Sinai, prompted worshippers to flee the building, running for their lives. When they did so, they came under attack by gunmen. Photos posted online showed bodies covered in blankets inside the mosque.

Ambulances which arrived at the scene to carry the injured to nearby hospitals also came under attack. "They were shooting at people as they left the mosque," a local resident whose relatives were at the scene told Reuters. "They were shooting at the ambulances too."

The attacks were carried out by suspected militants. State TV reported that five attackers were involved.

Arabiya news channel and local sources said some of the worshippers were Sufis, who hardliners such as Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) regard as apostates because they revere saints and shrines, which for Islamists is tantamount to idolatry.

The office of Egyptian President Abdelfattah El-Sisi has declared three days of mourning following the attack. He said that although the attack was aimed at shaking Egyptians' confidence, it will only increase the country's efforts to counter terrorism, according to Al Arabiya.

Following the attack, el-Sisi vowed to “vigorously” respond to the actions of the terrorists. “It is a cowardly attack that aims to destabilize the [Egyptian] unity, spread bitterness, and make us doubt our abilities,” he said, addressing the nation. “However, this attack will do nothing but make us stronger and more persistent to combat terrorism,” the president added.

A major campaign, 'Operation Revenge of the Martyrs,' has been launched following the attacks, the news outlet reported. Egyptian security forces then allegedly killed 15 extremists involved in the mosque attack in a drone strike in the Al-Risha desert, not far from Bir al-Abed where the attack took place, Sky News Arabia reports citing security sources.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent condolences to the Egyptian president, describing Friday’s attack as cruel and cynical. "The murder of civilians in the course of a religious service is striking with its cruelty and cynicism. We are once again convinced that the notion of human morality is absolutely alien to terrorists," Putin said in a channel on the messaging app Telegram.

US President Donald Trump described the attack as “cowardly," while stressing that the world must defeat terrorists militarily.

Militants in the sparsely-populated Sinai peninsula have largely targeted security forces in their attacks since Sisi, then an armed forces commander, led the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Twenty-four IS militants and six Egyptian soldiers were killed in a series of coordinated attacks on checkpoints last month. In July, at least 23 soldiers were killed after suicide bombs hit two military checkpoints, in an attack claimed by IS. Sisi described Sinai as a "nesting ground for terrorism” following a suicide bombing that killed 31 soldiers in 2014.

However, jihadists have also targeted local Sinai tribes working with armed forces, viewing them as traitors for cooperating with the military and police. They have also tried to expand into Egypt's mainland, targeting Coptic Christian churches and pilgrims. Twenty-nine people were killed when gunmen attacked a Coptic group traveling to a monastery in southern Egypt in May.