Egypt: ISIS Gunmen Attack St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai

ISIS claims responsibility for attack that left one policeman dead and wounded four others

Saint Catherine's monastery in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt May 18, 2005.
Saint Catherine's monastery in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt May 18, 2005. REUTERS

Gunmen opened fire on an Egyptian police checkpoint near the famed Saint Catherine's Monastery in Sinai late on Tuesday, killing one policeman and wounding four, security and medical officials said.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack via its news agency Amaq.

According to the officials, the gunmen were shooting from an elevated hilltop overlooking the police checkpoint just outside the monastery, which is located in a remote desert and mountainous area in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula.

After an exchange of gunfire, the attackers fled the scene, the officials said, adding that some of the gunmen were wounded in the shootout. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.

Earlier on Tuesday, Israel decided to keep the Sinai border crossing with Egypt closed for Israeli travelers, citing a "situation report" by its National Security Council's counterterrorism unit. The decision to close the border was made last week, on the eve of Passover, in light of a security assessment of the situation in the Sinai region and the risk posed to Israelis due to increased ISIS-affiliated activity in the area. Moments after the border closure last week militants from Sinai fired a rocket into Israel

The attack on the monastery, built in the 6th century and a popular site for tourists visiting the Red Sea resorts along Sinai's southern coast, comes just over a week after suicide bombers attacked two churches in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the coastal city of Alexandria, killing 45 people on Palm Sunday. Egypt's Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for those attacks.

ISIS has vowed more attacks against Christians in Egypt, who make up 10 percent of the country's population of over 90 million people.

Security sources said that security had been put on high alert at tourist facilities across southern Sinai after the attack. 

The attack in southern Sinai comes as Russia is expected to make a long-awaited decision on whether to restore flights to the Sharm el-Sheikh resort after a Russian airliner was downed in 2015, dealing a serious blow to the area's tourism industry, which relies heavily on Russian visitors. 

Egypt's tourism industry, a crucial source of hard currency, has suffered in the years of turmoil that followed the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, as well as from the suspected bombing of the Russian plane, which killed all 224 on board. 

Israel took the unusual step earlier this month of barring its citizens from crossing into the Sinai peninsula, saying the threat of attacks in the area inspired by Islamic State and other jihadi groups was high. 

The Palm Sunday attack prompted President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to declare a three-month state of emergency and deploy armed forces to help police in guarding vital installations, including churches across the country.

A state of emergency already in place in northern Sinai has failed to halt near-daily attacks against police and security forces by ISIS in the volatile area. The extremist group has lately stepped up its attacks, moving its activities from Sinai to other parts of Egypt and is increasingly using sophisticated tactics that are likely to fuel sectarian tensions and embarrass Sissi.

Egypt's Copts, the Middle East's largest Christian community, have also long complained of suffering discrimination, as well as outright attacks, at the hands of the country's majority Muslim population.

Over the past decades, they have been the immediate targets of Islamic extremists as Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Christians strongly supported longtime autocratic Mubarak until his ouster in 2011.

Tuesday's attack comes shortly before a planned visit by the Vatican Pope Francis to Egypt next week.