Armed men attacked foreign peacekeepers operating in Egypt's North Sinai today, in what appears to be an opportunistic attack by Islamist militants inspired by the anti-American protests that have swept the Muslim world in the past few days.
The attackers threw hand grenades, fired rocket-propelled grenades, briefly entered the peacekeepers camp, and raised a black Islamist flag, according to a former Egyptian state security officer who spoke with several officers on the base. The former Egyptian officer asked not to be identified by name.
At least five officers were wounded in the attack including two Egyptian military officers, two Colombians, and a British fire chief, according to his account,
The attack was on a Multinational Force and Observers base. The multinational force, which includes Americans, was deployed as part of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The northern base of the multinational force is near to the border with Gaza, in Al Gorah, near the city of Al Arish.
The base has been targeted several times in the past year, as a security vacuum in the Sinai has allowed Islamic militant groups to thrive. In April, a group of militants surrounded and blocked off the base, demanding the release of five people jailed for bombing Sinai tourist resorts in 2004 and 2005. They ended their siege when police released the men. In August, militants attacked an Egyptian military checkpoint not far from there, killing 16 soldiers.
Today’s attack began around 4:30 pm Cairo time, when militants set tires on fire outside the base. When a fire engine stationed at the camp ventured out, militants shot the truck with an RPG, according to the source. They then attacked watch tower 12 of the camp, which was manned by a Colombian soldier. The militants used what was believed to be a hand grenade, wounding the Colombian soldier inside the tower. The militants entered the tower and raised a black flag inscribed with the Islamic profession of faith, according to the source.
The militants made their way 30 to 50 meters inside the camp before they retreated under fire from Colombian soldiers. The attackers were shouting the Islamic profession of faith – “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet,” as well as “Down with the Zionist infidels” and “We’re here to kill the Zionists and protectors of the Zionists,” according to the source who spoke with officers on the scene. The source estimates there were 150-200 attackers, who used 4x4 vehicles. They damaged at least one of the four non-armed Black Hawk helicopters on the base during the attack.
Three of the wounded have been evacuated to Israel, according to the source. American and Fijian troops are now responsible for securing the camp.
The Egyptian military initially responded by sending 4 armored personnel carriers to the base, then sending reinforcements two hours later. There are currently 12 Egyptian military APCs surrounding the base, says the source. The officers on the base believe that local tribal elders came to the base and worked to convincers the attackers to retreat, before the Egyptian military arrived.