At least 305 people were killed, including 27 children, and 128 others were wounded Friday after militants targeted a mosque with bombs and subsequent gunfire in Egypt's northern Sinai province, Egyptian state news agency says.
The death toll, highest in Egypt's modern history, has risen from the initial 50 on Friday afternoon to 305 on Saturday.
The attack took place roughly 40 kilometers west of the provincial capital of El-Arish during noon prayers before gunmen in four off-road vehicles opened fire on worshipers leaving the mosque, witnesses and security forces said.
The heinous attack targeted a mosque frequented by Sufis, members of a mystic movement within Islam. Extremist groups, including the local affiliate of the Daesh group, consider Sufis heretics because of their less literal interpretations of the faith.
The victims included civilians and conscripts praying at Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, as at least 30 ambulances ferried wounded from the scene to nearby hospitals.
The Ministry of Health said gunmen blocked ambulances from arriving at the scene and fired on ambulances carrying wounded people from the scene of the attack.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. However, the public prosecutor's office said in a statement of Saturday that the militants numbered between 25 to 30, were carrying the flag of Daesh terrorist group.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi held an emergency meeting of the government's Security Committee later Friday, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported. The meeting was be attended by the ministers of defense and interior and the head of Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate. The government also declared three days of mourning following the attack.
Sissi vowed that the attack "will not go unpunished" and that Egypt would persevere with its war on terrorism. But he did not specify what new steps might be taken.
The military and security forces have already been waging a tough campaign against militants in the towns, villages and desert mountains of Sinai, and Egypt has been in a state of emergency for months. Across the country, thousands have been arrested in a crackdown on suspected terrorists as well as against other dissenters and critics, raising concern about human rights violations.
Addressing the nation later on television, he said Egypt is waging a battle against militancy on behalf of the rest of the world, a declaration he has often made in seeking international support for the fight.
Egypt's military said on Saturday it had carried out airstrikes and raids overnight against militants held responsible for the attack. The country has been fighting a militant insurgency since mid-2013, when the army ousted and imprisoned Mohamed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, in a bloody military coup.
President Donald Trump denounced what he called a "horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenseless worshippers."
"The world cannot tolerate terrorism" he said on Twitter, "we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!" He later tweeted that he would call Sissi and said the attack showed the need to get "tougher and smarter," including by building the wall he has promised along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement, strongly condemning the bomb attack and conveying its condolences to the families and "brotherly people of Egypt."
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also condemned the terror attack and offered his condolences to the families of the victims in a tweet.
I strongly condemn the terrorist attack in Sinai region of #Egypt that took lives of many innocent civilians. I convey my condolences to the families of those who were killed and to the brotherly people of Egypt; I also wish speedy recovery to the wounded.— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) November 24, 2017
The insurgency has been largely confined to the northern Sinai Peninsula, but sporadic attacks targeting tourists and the country's Christian minority of Copts have also occurred on the mainland, including capital Cairo. Most of the attacks have been claimed by the Daesh terrorist group, which is also believed to be behind the 2016 downing of a Russian passenger jet that killed 226 people.
Friday's assault was the first major militant attack on a Muslim congregation, and it eclipsed past attacks, even dating back to a previous militant insurgency in the 1990s.
The militants descended on the mosque in four off-road vehicles as hundreds worshipped inside. At least a dozen attackers charged in, opening fire randomly, the main cleric at the mosque, Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Fatah Zowraiq told The Associated Press by phone from a Nile Delta town where he was recuperating from bruises and scratches suffered in the attack. He said there were explosions as well.
Officials cited by the state news agency MENA said the attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades and shot men as they tried to run from the building. The militants blocked off escape routes with burning cars, three police officers on the scene told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Abdullah Abdel-Nasser, 14, who was attending prayers with his father, said the shooting began just as the cleric was about to start his sermon, sending panicked worshippers rushing to hide behind concrete columns or whatever shelter they could find. At one point, a militant shouted for children to leave, so Abdel-Nasser said he rushed out, though he was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel and a bullet.
"I saw many people on the floor, many dead. I don't think anyone survived," he said at a hospital in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, where around 40 of the wounded were taken, including many children.
Mohammed Ali said 18 members of his extended family were killed in the attack. The mosque belonged to a local clan, the Jreer, so many of its members worshipped there.
"Where was the army? It's only a few kilometers away. This is the question we cannot find an answer to," he said.
The attackers escaped, apparently before security forces could confront them.
Afterward, dozens of bloodied bodies wrapped in sheets were laid across the mosque floor, according to images circulating on social media. Relatives lined up outside a nearby hospital as ambulances raced back and forth.
Resident Ashraf el-Hefny said many of the victims were workers at a nearby salt mine who had come for Friday services at the mosque.
"Local people brought the wounded to hospital on their own cars and trucks," he said by telephone.
No one claimed immediate responsibility for the attack. But the Daesh group affiliate has targeted Sufis in the past. Last year, the militants beheaded a leading local Sufi religious figure, the blind sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz, and posted photos of the killing online.
Daesh group propaganda often denounces Sufis. In the January edition of a Daesh online magazine, a figure purporting to be a high level official in the Sinai affiliate of the group vowed to target Sufis, accusing them of idolatry and heretical "innovation" in religion and warning that the group will "not permit (their) presence" in Sinai or Egypt.
Millions of Egyptians belong to Sufi orders, which hold sessions of chanting and poetry meant to draw the faithful closer to God. Sufis also hold shrines containing the tombs of holy men in particular reverence.
Islamic hardliners view such practices as improper, even heretical, and militants across the region often destroy Sufi shrines, saying they encourage idolatry because people pray to the figures buried there for intercession.
Militants stepped up their campaign of violence in northern Sinai after the military ousted the elected but divisive Mohammed Morsi from power in 2013 and launched a fierce crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group.
The result has been a long, grinding conflict centered on Arish and nearby villages. The militants have been unable to control territory, but the military and security forces have also been unable to bring security, as the extremists continuously carry out attacks.
The attacks have largely focused on military and police, killing hundreds, although exact numbers are unclear as journalists and independent investigators are banned from the area. The militants have also assassinated individuals the group considers spies for the government or religious heretics.
Egypt has also faced attacks by militants in its Western Desert.