(New York) – The horrific attack by armed militants on a mosque in Egypt’s North Sinai region during Friday prayers is a grim reminder of the dangers facing Sinai residents today, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch expresses its sincere condolences to the relatives of the victims and wishes for a speedy recovery for the wounded.
“This is an outrageous attack on people in a holy place who should have been able to conduct Friday prayers in safety,” said Nadim Houry, director of the terrorism and counterterrorism program at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian authorities should bring those responsible to account and allow journalists and other independent observers into North Sinai.”
The attack on al-Rawda mosque, which is affiliated with a Sufi school, killed at least 235 and injured 109, according to the Office of the Public Prosecutor. The mosque is in the Bir al-Abed area. No group had claimed responsibility for the attack at the time of writing. Eyewitnesses told Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian news site, that armed militants detonated an explosive device near the mosque, then opened fire at the worshippers, including children.
Violence has significantly escalated in North Sinai, a long-marginalized governorate that borders Israel and Gaza, since July 2013, after the military orchestrated the forcible removal of former President Mohamed Morsy.
The extremist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and renamed itself “Sinai Province” in November 2014, has established a stronghold in the area and has waged a series of attacks on Egyptian police and armed forces there, in addition to targeting Christians and suspected collaborators. The group also kidnapped and executed an elderly Sufi sheikh, Suleiman Abu Haraz, in November 2016. The extremist group is enforcing its interpretation of sharia laws on areas of East Sinai, such as banning cigarettes and punishing those who sell them, local residents told Human Rights Watch.
More than 130 attacks were reported across North Sinai in the first quarter of 2017, according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Sinai is effectively a closed military zone.
Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, declared a state of emergency, including a curfew, in most of the Sinai governorate in October 2014 and has extended it ever since. Tens of thousands of civilians are caught up in the fighting between the extremist armed groups and government forces, and many people have been displaced or have left their homes, especially in the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed.