EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — In near-simultaneous attacks, a pair of suicide bombers rammed their explosives-laden cars into military targets in Egypt’s volatile Sinai on Wednesday, killing at least nine soldiers and nudging the conflict there closer to a full-blown insurgency.
The bombings in the town of Rafah on the border with the Gaza Strip appear to be a deadly response by insurgents to a military crackdown on their north Sinai hideouts that has reportedly left over three dozen dead.
Suicide attacks are a new element in the wave of political violence triggered initially by the ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohammed Morsi on July 3, and intensified by a violent crackdown on his supporters’ protest camps. They suggest that al-Qaida-inspired groups may be developing a new capability to strike at security and other targets, both in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt.
One of the two bombings in the town of Rafah brought down a two-story building housing the local branch of military intelligence. It collapsed the entire structure, two security officials said, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to the media. They said no bodies were found under the rubbles, but the attack left 10 soldiers and seven civilians, three of them women, wounded.
The second attack targeted an armored personnel carrier at an army checkpoint not far from the intelligence headquarters, the officials added.
The officials said the remains of the two suicide bombers have been recovered. The officials gave a death toll of nine for both attacks but did not say how many were killed in each.
“The use of car bombs and suicide attacks in a new turn,” military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali told The Associated Press. He said the bombings appear to be revenge for the Sinai offensive, which he said hurt the militants by destroying weapons and ammunition caches.
“This will not stop us, but will increase our determination to confront terrorism,” he said.
The attacks come less than a week after a suicide car bombing targeted the convoy of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police, shortly after he left his east Cairo home. Ibrahim escaped unharmed but a civilian was killed.
One of the al-Qaida-inspired groups based in Sinai, Ansar Jerusalem, later claimed responsibility for that bombing. The claim was never verified. If true, it would be the first time a Sinai-based group carried a suicide attack in the heart of Cairo.
These three bombings, plus another one in Sinai last month, are the first in Egypt since the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The conflict in the Sinai adds to Egypt’s woes as it struggles to regain political stability and economic viability.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks. Col. Ali said it was still early to determine which group or groups carried it out.
However, Ansar Jerusalem issued a statement Wednesday claiming responsibility for three other recent attacks on the military.
In a statement, the group blasted Egypt’s military for conducting “a dirty war, deputizing all anti-Islam forces in and outside Egypt, especially the Jews.” The group has ties to militants in the Gaza Strip, and has claimed in the past attacks on Israel.
The military offensive came after a series of deadly attacks against troops, notably the Aug. 19 killing of 25 off-duty policemen who were pulled off mini-buses and shot, with their hands tied behind their backs.
Starting Saturday, helicopter gunships and tanks pounded suspected hideouts and weapon caches of Islamic militants in tiny villages along the border. Officials said the three-day offensive has left 29 Islamic militants dead, while some 30 suspects have been arrested— mostly low-level operatives. One officer and two soldiers have also been killed in the operation.
Col. Ali said a “significant” number of foreign militants were also detained.
The military assault increased tension with local residents. The Bedouin Sinai tribes are divided between those who back the government and others who support insurgent groups.
Moussa el-Manaei, a teacher and merchant, said soldiers stormed his village al-Mahdiya on Monday, randomly shooting at homes and vehicles. He said he saw a soldier set fire to a shed holding a cow, burning the animal alive.
Officials say they were seeking a wanted militant in the area. El-Manaei acknowledged that a suspect had a house in the village, but that nearly 40 homes suffered damaged.
He said no one was killed, but the destruction of property “terrorized the whole area,” el-Manaei said. “We used to have good relations with the military. After what I saw, I don’t have words. It is a scene I will never forget in my life.”
Ansar Jerusalem is apparently trying to exploit such anger, claiming in its statement that the military has killed civilians, set fire to homes, bombed mosques and stolen possessions. It also claimed that Israeli drones joined the offensive.
Access to the area is limited and neither side’s claims could be verified. A Sinai journalist, Ahmed Abu Draa, arrested last week was referred to military trial Wednesday on charges of spreading lies about the military and spreading strife. Abu Draa had questioned the military’s statements about the ongoing offensive.
His trial, the announcement of which caused uproar among journalists, begins Sunday.
Officials estimate six militant groups operate in Sinai, with about 5,000 members, seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate there based on a hard-line interpretation of the religion. The militants use mountains in north and central Sinai as hideouts.
Officials say the militants have shifted their operations to target the military after Morsi’s overthrow. Formerly, some groups targeted Israel with rockets while others went after security forces.
“The criminal army is waging a war on Islam because it is an army that is loyal to the enemies of God and is battling the religion of God,” the group said in the statement. “Fighting them and deterring them is obligatory.”
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael and Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo