Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cut short a visit to Ethiopia for an African Union summit on Friday, after Islamic State’s Egyptian wing claimed the killing of at least 30 security personnel in the Sinai Peninsula.
Sisi’s office said in a statement that Sisi would return to Cairo after Friday morning’s opening session. The four separate attacks on security forces in North Sinai on Thursday night were among the bloodiest in years.
Most of the casualties occurred in the bombing of a military hotel and base in the heavily guarded provincial capital, al-Arish.
Security sources in Sinai said three military planes left al-Arish for Cairo on Friday morning carrying 30 body bags, some of them containing dismembered corpses. They said at least five men were in critical condition and the death toll was likely to rise.
An Islamist insurgency based in the Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, has intensified since the army ousted president Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013 after mass protests. Hundreds of members of the security forces have been killed.
The Brotherhood denies links to the insurgents but the government makes no distinction between them. The most active group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, changed its name to Sinai Province last year when it swore allegiance to Islamic State, the hardline Sunni militant group that has seized swathes of Iraq and Syria, drawing US-led air strikes.
The attacks in the peninsula, were the deadliest since in two attacks in October. Soldiers and police are frequently targeted at remote outposts outside Sinai’s main towns, but the attack on military facilities in al-Arish could signal an escalation in their capabilities, said Zack Gold of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
The week had already been a bloody one in Egypt. More than 25 people were killed at the weekend when security forces fired at protesters angered by what many perceive as a police state.
After two attacks in October in which 33 security personnel were killed, Egypt declared a state of emergency in the area where Sinai borders Gaza.
It accelerated plans to create a buffer strip by clearing houses and trees and destroying subterranean tunnels that it says are used to smuggle arms into Sinai. Critics say the government is stoking resentment against already marginalised communities.
Sisi, the former army chief who toppled Mursi, says Egypt is fighting a war on terrorism and has the support of Western and Gulf Arab allies.