Egyptian forces shoot dead seven jihadists planning to attack a Christian monastery days after bombing Coptic church as part of ISIS plan to divide the country
- WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
- Egyptian security forces killed seven suspected ISIS militants on Monday during a raid in Assuit province
- Interior Ministry said the men, one of whom was a government employee, were planning attacks on Christians
- Images show compound filled with machine guns, AK47s, belts of ammunition and extremist propaganda
- Comes after 44 people were killed in two bomb attacks targeting minority Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday
- President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has declared a three-month state of emergency and a crackdown on extremists
Egyptian security forces killed seven suspected ISIS militants as the extremists met on Monday to plan more attacks on minority Christians, the government has said.
The men were killed in a shootout in the southern province of Assuit. Authorities say the militants were planning to attack a monastery in Durunka, Christians across Assuit and Sohag provinces, and attack police officers, government buildings and a courthouse.
Authorities named three of the men as Hasan Abdel-Al Siddiq, 30, a government employee with the Directorate of Health, Islam Said Abdel Salam Ismail, 21, a law student, and 22-year-old Mustapha al-Sayyed Muhammad Dhahr.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi praised the work of his security forces and accused jihadis of trying to divide Egyptian society by attacking vulnerable minorities.
A statement by Egypt’s Interior Ministry said the shootout started when the jihadis opened fire with heavy weapons as they were approached by members of the security services.
Security forces returned fire, killing the men. Images from the scene show a compound filled with machine guns, AK47s, belts and magazines of ammunition, and a motorbike.
Also contained inside the building were pads filled with notes on the organisation of so-called Islamic State, and details of their attack plans.
The raid came hours after Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency following two ISIS bomb attacks which killed 44 people in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday.
The announcement follows on from campaign promises by Sisi to protect religious minorities, who have long complained of persecution at the hands of extremists.
Elsewhere on Monday, hundreds of mourners gathered at Alexandria’s Monastery of Saint Mina to remember the 17 people killed at the city’s Coptic cathedral.
The blast came hours after a bomb struck another Coptic church in Tanta, a nearby city in the Nile Delta, that took the lives of 28 and wounded nearly 80.
In Alexandria, mourners were outraged by what they said was the state’s failure to keep them safe on one of their holiest days.
They carried wooden coffins to the beat of drums interrupted by the wails of those dressed in all black.
‘Where should we go pray? They are attacking us in our churches. They don’t want us to pray but we will pray,’ said Samira Adly, 53, whose neighbours were killed in the attack.
‘Everyone is falling short…the government, the people… nothing is good.’
Earlier mourners filled the church in Tanta that had been torn apart in the bombing to commemorate victims.
They packed the streets leading to the Coptic Church of Mar Girgis – or St. George – to pay their respects while relatives inside laid their bodies across the coffins and wept.
A suicide bomber slipped past security and detonated the bomb while Christian worshippers were observing Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, leaving blood splattered on the marble pillars while the sound of hymns turned to desperate screams. The blast killed 27 and injured 78 others.
Just two hours later, a suicide bomber entered St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, and killed 17.
Both explosions, claimed by ISIS, came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit the Arab world’s most populous country.
ISIS claimed the attacks through its Aamaq news agency, having recently warned that it would step up violence against Egypt’s Christians.
The first explosion on Sunday occurred when a suicide bomber slipped past the church doors, which had already been closed as a security measure.
The terrorist made it past metal detectors and detonated the bomb near the altar.
Hundreds gathered outside the Tanta church shortly after the blast, some weeping and wearing black while inside, blown apart pews sat atop tiles soaked with blood.
‘There was blood all over the floor and body parts scattered,’ a woman who was inside the church at the time of the attack said.
‘There was a huge explosion in the hall. Fire and smoke filled the room and the injuries were extremely severe,’ another woman, Vivian Fareeg, said.
CCTV footage captured the second attack in Alexandria, where a suicide bomber dressed in a blue pullover approached the gate at St Mark’s before he was told to go through a metal detector.
He passed a female police officer talking to another woman, and entered a metal detector before an explosion engulfed the area.
The atrocity was thought to have been aimed at Pope of Alexandria Tawadros II, who drew an especially large crowd as the leader of the ancient Coptic church. He was leading prayers in St Mark’s at the time but escaped unharmed.
‘These acts will not harm the unity and cohesion of the people,’ he was later quoted as saying by state media.
Three officers who died in the attack were named as Ahmed Ibrahim, Brigadier General Nagwa El-Haggar and Emad El-Rakiby.
After news of the two attacks sent shock waves across the world, Egyptians rallied against ISIS and declared ‘your terrorism brings us together’ on social media.
Muslims were also pictured lining up to give blood in support of Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the country’s population.
President Donald Trump tweeted that he is ‘so sad to hear of the terrorist attack’ against the U.S. ally but added that he has ‘great confidence’ that el-Sissi ‘will handle the situation properly.’
The two leaders met at the White House on April 3.
Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar – the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam – also condemned the attacks, calling them a ‘despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.’
Both Israel and the Islamic Hamas movement ruling neighboring Gaza condemned the bombings as well.
The bombings added to fears that Islamic extremists who have long been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula are shifting their focus to civilians.
An Isis affiliate claimed a December suicide bombing at a Cairo church that killed about 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the northern Sinai that caused hundreds of Christians to flee.
Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of an elected Islamist president.
The Sinai-based IS affiliate has mainly attacked police and soldiers, but has also claimed bombings that killed civilians, including the downing of a Russian passenger jetliner in the Sinai in 2015.
This killed all 224 people onboard and devastated Egypt’s tourism industry.
And in April 1, a militant group claimed responsibility for a bomb attack targeting a police training center in Tanta, which wounded 16 people.
Egyptian media had previously reported that the church in Tanta had been targeted before, with a bomb defused there in late March.
The Copts were largely supportive of the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and incurred the wrath of many of his followers, who attacked churches and other Christian institutions.
While the Copts have stood steadfast alongside the government, repeating the mantra that Egyptians were all being targeted by terrorists, an increase in attacks on Christians has tested that support.