LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
One thing is clear about the fighting in Egypt's northern Sinai Peninsula. It's getting worse. But the details are in dispute. Egypt's army says 17 of its soldiers were killed yesterday in a coordinated attack likely connected to ISIS. Local security services say the total was at least 50 and perhaps far more. Merrit Kennedy reports from Cairo.
MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Egypt's armed forces said more than 70 militants struck at least five checkpoints simultaneously in the early morning. The attack set off hours of deadly clashes in the rest of Sinai Peninsula, the fiercest fighting in the area in decades. Egypt's military said it responded with airstrikes, and the Sinai-based branch of the self-proclaimed Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on Twitter.
MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: It's obviously a major failing on the part of the Egyptian military despite ongoing military operations.
KENNEDY: That's Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the Century Foundation.
HANNA: I think this is a deeply rooted problem, and the Egyptian state does not appear to have the capacities to deal with this effectively.
KENNEDY: Two years after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in a military coup, Egypt faces a burgeoning insurgency, which has survived and even grown. Morsi's group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has since been banned and branded a terrorist organization. Attacks on security forces have only escalated. Egypt's armed forces issued a televised statement following the attacks.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
KENNEDY: "We will not stop until Sinai is cleansed of all terrorist cells," it said, "and until our beloved country enjoys security and stability."
Hours after the fighting began, Egyptian state media said police killed nine militants in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood released a statement, saying it was a cold-blooded assassination of several of its leaders, including a former member of Parliament and called on its supporters to rise up in revolt. Egypt was already reeling from Monday's assassination of chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat, who was killed when militants hit his convoy with a car bomb. Barakat has brought thousands of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's political opponents to trial. Sissi appeared at the chief prosecutor's funeral on Tuesday, shaking his fist and vowing to amend Egypt's laws.
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PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: (Foreign language spoken).
KENNEDY: "The hand of swift justice is tied by law," he said, "and we are not going to wait for this." On Wednesday, Egypt's cabinet approved a new law on terrorism at breakneck speed. The full details have yet to be released. The local media suggests the draft law expedites trials through the appeals system, garnering criticism about due process from rights advocates. Analyst Michael Wahid Hanna.
HANNA: And, of course, there is serious reason for concern when legislation is passed in the heat of the moment, in the midst of crises. And this is one more example of that.
KENNEDY: And Hanna questions whether this will be a more effective counterterrorism strategy as Egypt prepares to bury its soldiers killed in Sinai. For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.
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