Egypt Strikes Militant Camp in Libya After Killing of Christians

  • At least 29 dead in attack on buses carrying Coptic Christians
  • El-Sisi says Egypt won’t hesitate to carry fight across border

Egypt carried out air strikes against militants across the border in Libya, saying they targeted the group responsible for a deadly attack on Christians earlier on Friday.

At least 29 people, some of them children, were killed when gunmen in military fatigues opened fire on a bus carrying members of the Coptic Christian minority in Minya province, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Cairo. It was the latest in a series of attacks on the community. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The army said on its Facebook page late Friday that air raids against militant camps in Libya were ongoing. The official MENA news agency said the location was Derna, and the target was a group called the Shura Council of Mujahideen.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who announced the reprisal in a televised address, didn’t give details about the location or targets. But he signaled that Libya -- which has collapsed into chaos after the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 -- poses a threat, and said Egypt’s military is ready to strike outside the country’s borders if necessary.

“After the fall of the regime in Libya we were alert and we knew that a great evil will come from there,” El-Sisi said, adding that in the past three months Egyptian security forces have destroyed 300 vehicles attempting to cross the border. “Egypt will never hesitate to hit terror camps anywhere.”

Another 25 people were wounded in the assault in Minya, local governor Issam al-Bedewi said in a statement. The Copts were on their way to the Saint Samuel monastery. Bishop Anba Ermia, president of the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center, said on Twitter as many as 35 people traveling in more than one vehicle may have been killed.

Egypt’s war with Islamist militants, who are especially active in the eastern Sinai region, has strained the country’s effort to revive an economy battered by years of unrest. Militants in Sinai have declared loyalty to Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for bombing two Coptic churches in April. In 2015, Egypt bombed militants in Libya to avenge the beheading of 21 Copts by Islamic State.

The Minya attack came days after El-Sisi joined U.S. President Donald Trump and Arab leaders to launch a new center in the Saudi capital Riyadh to combat the Islamist ideologies behind terrorism. El-Sisi addressed Trump directly during his televised speech, telling him that “your top mission will be to face terrorism in the world.”

Trump condemned the “merciless slaughter of Christians in Egypt” in a statement emailed from the White House. He said such crimes “bring nations together for the righteous purpose of crushing the evil organizations of terror,” while also calling on U.S. allies in the region to defend their Christian communities.

Read: Trump’s War on Extremism Has Some Awkward Allies in Saudi Arabia.

The morning assault began when about 10 men wearing military-style clothing opened fire, according to Major Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, who’s with the Minya security directorate. The region has seen militant activity before, especially in the 1990s when government forces fought the Sunni group Gamaa Al-Islamiya. Tensions between Muslims and Christians frequently flare.

Al Arabiya broadcast an interview with one of the survivors. “They opened fire on us from the outside then they entered the bus,” the unidentified woman said. “My husband was shot in his eye and his neck. My sister, her husband and my four year-old daughter, what wrong have they done? My sister’s daughter, what wrong has she done?”

The back-to-back church bombings in April killed more than three dozen people, the deadliest assault in years on the Coptic community, widely estimated to make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 93 million residents. Following the bombings, El-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency and created an anti-terrorism body.

The government “is never bored of repeating that fighting terrorism shouldn’t be through security means only, but apparently they don’t have a strategy to combat it,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo university.

Read: Why Trump Means Closer Egypt Ties to U.S. Than Obama: QuickTake.

Copts have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation and have accused authorities of failing to protect them against extremist violence. They became some of El-Sisi’s strongest supporters after the military-backed ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013.

But that may be changing, according to Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “Copts are really angry,” he said. “More than 100 people have been killed since December and the state is not capable of protecting them.”

Shortly after Mursi’s ouster, El-Sisi, then the minister of defense, asked for a public mandate to fight “potential terrorism,” which included a sweeping crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. In April, he said that the fight would be long and hard, asking Egyptians to “bear the pain” as the state faced both militant threats and economic challenges.

The government narrative that it needs people’s support to fight terrorism works as long as attacks remain occasional, said Tadros. “But the frequency of such attacks makes people think maybe this government isn’t doing a good job.”

— With assistance by Dana Khraiche, and Abdel Latif Wahba

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