AP — In a brazen daytime attack, about a dozen Islamic militants robbed a local bank, lobbed grenades and traded gunfire with security forces guarding an unused church in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Monday, killing seven people, including three civilians, officials said.
The militants drove into the city center of el-Arish in the morning, then split into two groups. One group fired rocket-propelled grenades and traded gunfire with the guards outside the Church of Saint George, security and military officials said. Services at the church were suspended months ago, following a wave of attacks on Christians in Sinai.
The church attack was meant as a distraction from the bank, where the second group of militants first shot and killed the bank guards, then stormed in and emptied its safe.
The attacks left three civilians, including a child, three guards and one soldier dead and wounded another 15 people, including women and children, the officials said.
The two groups of attackers were caught on camera while fleeing the site of the clashes in a stolen pickup and three motorcycles.
“They looted the entire bank and left explosive devices inside,” a senior security official said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Egypt’s state news agency MENA confirmed that three policemen were killed in an armed attack on the bank in el-Arish.
Panic spread in the city, which has been under a state of emergency and curfew since a series of deadly ISIS attacks in 2014. A bank employee appeared to have been kidnapped in Monday’s attack, the officials said.
Security forces cordoned off the city center and evacuated residents living in the bank building. Pictures posted on social media by locals from el-Arish showed school girls fleeing a school located in the vicinity of the bank and the church.
Schoolteacher Ashraf Hanafi told The Associated Press that the gunfire lasted for about two hours on Monday morning.
“I rushed to my daughters’ school,” he said, adding that on his way he saw militants brandishing rifles and running toward the bank. He said he also saw bodies of two bleeding men lying on the ground.
The fighting came less than 24 hours after the ISIS affiliate in Sinai killed nine soldiers in series of attacks targeting checkpoints across the nearby town of Sheikh Zweid. ISIS claimed responsibility in a statement carried by the extremists’ Aamaq media outlet. The army said 24 attackers were killed. On Thursday, six other policemen were also killed in an attack by the militants in el-Arish.