CAIRO — Dozens of Egyptian police were killed in clashes with militants in the country's western desert Friday, one of the deadliest attacks this year suffered by Egypt's security forces fighting persistent and spreading Islamist militancy.
At least 55 policemen, including 20 officers and 34 conscripts, were killed in a shootout during a raid on a militant hideout about 80 miles from the Egyptian capital, the Associated Press reported, citing security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Several other local media reported similar death tolls.
The violence was a stark indication of a core challenge facing the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East. Ever since he led a military coup to oust the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi four years ago, Sissi has portrayed himself as a linchpin in the fight against terrorism. In the name of combating the Islamist militancy, critics say he has suppressed political and social freedoms, and jailed thousands of Islamists. Egypt is one of the world's largest recipients of American military aid, a large portion of it designated to fight terrorism.
Yet the militancy is growing — and spreading. In the past year, hundreds of Egyptian security forces have been killed combating an Islamic State affiliate based in the northern Sinai whose cells have also targeted minority Christian communities and bombed churches in Cairo, Alexandria and other areas. In recent months, a group called the Hasm Movement has targeted security officials and judges, adding a deadly new dimension to the security threats facing the country. The insurgency has continued even as Egypt's military and police forces claim to have killed thousands of suspected terrorists.
In a statement, the Egyptian Interior Ministry acknowledged Friday's operation but said the gun battle resulted in 16 policemen being killed and 13 injured. The ministry also reported that 15 militants were killed. But Western diplomats and security officials described the death toll as in the dozens, with few militants, if any, being killed. It was unclear whether the Interior Ministry was referring to its own personnel killed and not a total that included forces from other security-related branches.
If the higher death toll is true, it would be the single deadliest assault on Egypt's security forces by Islamic militants in recent memory.
The incident took place late Friday after security forces received intelligence that suspected Islamist militants were at a hideout in the Baharia Oasis, south of the capital. As they approached, they were ambushed by gunmen using rocket-propelled grenades and bombs.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The militants, according to local media reports, belonged to Hasm, which Egypt's security forces say is the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement led by Morsi that is now outlawed. But analysts say there is no conclusive evidence that Hasm is officially linked to the Brotherhood, though some Hasm members are said to be Brotherhood members who now favor violent means to oppose the government.
Last month, at least 18 policemen were killed when a suicide bomber targeted their convoy near the North Sinai provincial capital of Arish. That attack was claimed by the Islamic State affiliate known as Wilayat Sinai, which has been waging a four-year insurgency against the government, mostly in northern Sinai. Last Sunday, six soldiers and two dozen militants were killed in assaults on military outposts there.
With the Islamic State eviscerated in Iraq and Syria, regional security officials and analysts say the group's affiliates are asserting themselves and seeking to carve out potential new safe havens for its fighters. Egypt and other parts of North Africa are among the key areas of the world where the group has made or is seeking to make inroads.
The ongoing insurgency, coupled with economic austerity measures imposed by Western donors, has spawned frustration and anger at the government — at a time when Sissi is widely expected to run in next year's presidential elections.
The State Department said in a statement Saturday that "the United States strongly condemns the terrorist attack against Egyptian security forces near the Bahariya Oasis yesterday, which killed dozens of Egyptian personnel and wounded many others.
"The United States stands with Egypt at this difficult time, as we continue to work together to fight the scourge of terrorism."