EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — A pair of suicide bombers rammed their explosives-laden cars into military targets in Egypt’s volatile Sinai on Wednesday, killing at least nine soldiers and wounding 17 people, security officials said.
One of the two bombings in the town of Rafah brought down a two-story building housing the local branch of military intelligence, while the other struck an army checkpoint.
The near-simultaneous attacks nudged the violence in the strategic Sinai Peninsula closer to a full-blown insurgency, compounding Egypt’s woes at a time when the country is struggling to regain political stability and economic viability more than two years since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising.
The attacks also came less than a week after a suicide car bombing targeted the convoy of Egypt’s interior minister, who is in charge of the police, shortly after he left his home in an eastern Cairo district. Mohammed Ibrahim, the minister, escaped unharmed, but the blast caused extensive damage in the area. An al-Qaida-inspired group based in Sinai later claimed responsibility for that bombing.
Wednesday’s attack on the intelligence building in Rafah collapsed the entire structure and buried an unspecified number of troops under the rubble, two security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The second attack targeted an armored personnel carrier deployed as part of an army checkpoint not far from the intelligence headquarters, the officials added. The officials said the remains of the two suicide bombers have been recovered.
The security officials said the blast at the intelligence building also badly damaged five houses nearby. The wounded included 10 soldiers and seven civilians, three of them women.
Egypt’s official MENA news agency later reported that following the attacks, authorities ordered the closure of the Rafah border crossing, which links Egypt to the Gaza Strip.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Wednesday’s attack.
Militants in Sinai, some with links to al-Qaida, have been targeting for months Egyptian forces in the strategic peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel. Their attacks have become much more frequent and deadlier since the ouster this summer of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president. After Mubarak’s ouster, Morsi became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2012 but he was deposed in July by the military after days of massive street protests against him.
Earlier this week, the Egyptian military launched a major offensive against the militants in the northern region of Sinai.
Officials have described the offensive, which started on Saturday, as the biggest sweep of the area in recent years, aiming to weed out al-Qaida-inspired groups that have taken control of villages in northern Sinai.
Five days of military operations so far have left 29 Islamic militants dead and the military has boasted of capturing weapons caches, missile launchers, and dozens of vehicles and fuel storage sites. Some 30 militants were arrested during raids — mostly low-level operatives.
One officer and two soldiers have also been killed in the operation since Saturday.
On Monday, MENA cited unnamed senior security officials as saying at least six militant groups with an estimated 5,000 members operate in Sinai. The militants use mountains in north and central Sinai as hideouts, where the rugged terrain is difficult to search.
But the repeated security operations have increased tension with local residents, who accuse authorities of randomly targeting homes and arresting innocent people.