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Militants launch attacks on Egyptian army checkpoints in Sinai, killing at last 50 troops

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EL-ARISH, Egypt — Islamic militants on Wednesday unleashed a wave of simultaneous attacks, including suicide car bombings, on Egyptian army checkpoints in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 50 soldiers, security and military officials said.

The coordinated morning assaults in Sinai came a day after Egypt's president pledged to step up the battle against Islamic militants and two days after the country's state prosecutor was assassinated in the capital, Cairo.

The scope and intensity of the attacks underscored the resilience and advanced planning by the militants who have for years battled Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai but intensified their insurgency over the past two years just as the government threw more resources into the drawn-out fight.

An Islamic State affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attacks, saying its fighters targeted a total of 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two of which targeted checkpoints and one that hit an officers' club in the nearby city of el-Arish.

The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified but it was posted on a Facebook page associated with the group.

Except for the attack at the officers' club, the rest took place in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints, the officials said. The militants also took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armored vehicles, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

At least 55 soldiers were wounded, the officials also said. As fighting raged, an army Apache gunship destroyed one of the armored carriers captured by the militants as they were driving it away, the officials added.

Egypt's military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir, said clashes were still underway in the area between the armed forces and the militants. His statement put the number of soldiers killed so far at 10, but the conflicting numbers could not immediately be reconciled in the immediate aftermath of a major attack.

Samir's statement, posted on his official Facebook page, said some 70 militants attacked five checkpoints in northern Sinai and that Egyptian troops killed 22 of them and destroyed three all-terrain vehicles fitted with anti-aircraft guns.

The fighting stretched into the mid-afternoon in what appeared to be the most intense clashes the peninsula has seen in decades.

The officials said scores of militants were besieging Sheikh Zuweid's main police station, shelling it with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and exchanging fire with dozens of policemen inside.

Northern Sinai has over the past two years witnessed a series of complex and successful attacks targeting Egyptian security forces, many of which have been claimed by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.

PHOTO: In this picture provided by the office of the Egyptian Presidency, Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, center front, Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhi, center right and former acting Egyptian president Adly Mansour, second left, attend the military funeral of Hisham Barakat  the top judicial official in charge of overseeing the prosecution of thousands of Islamists, including former President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi  promised to speed up proceedings against extremists by amending laws and freeing up the judiciary, a day after the country’s top prosecutor was killed in a car bombing. (Egyptian Presidency via AP)
In this picture provided by the office of the Egyptian Presidency, Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, center front, Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhi, center right and former acting Egyptian president Adly Mansour, second left, attend the military funeral of Hisham Barakat the top judicial official in charge of overseeing the prosecution of thousands of Islamists, including former President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi promised to speed up proceedings against extremists by amending laws and freeing up the judiciary, a day after the country’s top prosecutor was killed in a car bombing. (Egyptian Presidency via AP)

Two of the six checkpoints attacked Wednesday were completely destroyed, the officials said. Army checkpoints in the area routinely have between 50 and 60 soldiers. The IS statement said the two checkpoints were hit by suicide bombers.

The attacks came just two days after the assassination in Cairo of the country's top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, and one day after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed to step up a two-year crackdown on militants.

Last week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called in an audio message on IS followers to launch massive attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is now entering its third week.

Militants in northern Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, have battled security forces for years but stepped up their attacks following the July 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi after days of mass street protests against his rule.

El-Sissi, then the nation's army chief, led the ouster and went to become Egypt's president, winning a landslide election a year ago on a ticket that emphasized security and economic recovery.

Wednesday's attacks came in swift response to el-Sissi's pledge the previous day to carry out justice for the prosecutor general's assassination — and possibly move to execute Muslim Brotherhood leaders, an Islamist group from which Morsi hails.

Pounding his fist as he spoke Tuesday at the funeral of Barakat, who led the prosecution and oversaw scores of cases against thousands of Islamists, el-Sissi's comments seemed to signal an even tougher campaign on the Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest Islamist group that is now outlawed and declared a terrorist organization.

Egypt has since Morsi's ouster waged a crackdown that has led to thousands of arrests, mass convictions and death sentences. Morsi is among those condemned to die, but has a potentially lengthy appeal process ahead of him.

El-Sissi said the government was ready to brush aside criticisms and free the judiciary's hand for a "battle" the country is prepared to wage.

Though el-Sissi's crackdown on Islamists has been criticized by rights groups, activists, and some Egyptians, the majority of the population has supported his battle against the insurgency in Sinai.

"The judiciary is restricted by laws, and swift justice is also restricted by laws. We will not wait for that," el-Sissi said on Tuesday.

Action will be taken within days "to enable us to execute the law, and bring justice as soon as possible," he added. "We will stand in the face of the whole world, and fight the whole world."

In a thinly veiled reference to jailed members of the Brotherhood, el-Sissi blamed the violence on those "issuing orders from behind bars," and warned: "If there is a death sentence, it will be carried out."

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PHOTO: In this picture provided by the office of the Egyptian Presidency, a military procession accompanies the casket of Hisham Barakat, the top judicial official in charge of overseeing the prosecution of thousands of Islamists, including former President Mohammed Morsi, at his funeral in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. The Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi  promised to speed up proceedings against extremists by amending laws and freeing up the judiciary, a day after the country’s top prosecutor was killed in a car bombing. (Egyptian Presidency via AP)
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