Carnage at sunset
Ahmed Selim reports from Rafah on the men with black flags
Just as army soldiers sat down for their Ramadan sunset meal in a Rafah border point, the assailants drove in, firing wildly with automatic weapons. Details of the attack are still sketchy, but preliminary reports speak of a group of 35 assailants belonging to a jihadist group which has mounted similar, albeit less bloody, attacks in the past. The attackers are believed to have stolen an armed personnel carrier from a police border point and driven it to the army border point, where they opened fire at Egyptian soldiers, killing 16 and wounding seven.
The attackers then headed across to the Israeli borders, but an Israeli helicopter spotted them and fired at the APC, killing five gunmen.
A few hours later, men believed to belong to the same group fired at a police checkpoint in Al-Rayesa. The policemen, no doubt alerted by the previous attack, returned the fire and the assailants managed to escape.
Both attacks were timed to coincide with Ramadan meal times. The first happened at Iftar, or sunset and the Al-Rayesa attack took place at Sohour, or right before dawn.
Egyptian security services, aided with Sinai tribesmen are currently chasing the attackers in mountain areas and hope to arrest them "within hours", according to a security source speaking on condition of anonymity.
The assailants, who waved black flags during the attacks, belong to a hardline Islamic group which in the past attacked a police station in Arish as well as several gas facilities in the past. The group is said to be led by a Palestinian who escaped from the Abu Zaabal prison during the early days of the revolution.
According to the same security source, the group has recruited nearly 1,500 men from Egypt and other Arab countries, some of them are known to the police by name. The police have been planning a widescale operation against them for some time, but the operation was held back because of other security problems.
A state of alert has been declared in Sinai, especially around Rafah, with police and army manning nearly 50 road blocks and combing the area. Tribal chieftains are said to be helping the police identify the assailants.
In Arish Hospital, citizens have been donating blood to the victims. Sami Anwar, the hospital's director, says that the hospital received so much blood that he asked the public to stop donating because the hospital's refrigerators have been filled to capacity.
Mustafa Singer, who lives in Sheikh Zuweid, said that the attack resulted from years of repression which gave birth to extremist thinking. The assailants, he added, receive money and instructions from abroad.
Ibrahim Adam, teacher, said that the attack shook the Islamic world and that the assailants have no business associating themselves with Islam.
The Salafi movement in Sinai called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice for killing the innocent and also for jeopardising the country's security.
President Mohamed Mursi, Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan, and Interior Minister Ahmed Gamaleddin all arrived in Rafah to assess the situation.