CAIRO: Gunmen killed 21 Egyptian military border guards near the frontier with Libya yesterday, highlighting a growing threat from an area authorities say has become a haven for militants seeking to topple the Cairo government.
Security officials said the assailants were smugglers. But an army spokesman said on his Facebook page that “terrorists” — the term authorities use to describe Islamist militants — were behind the attack.
He said a weapons storage facility was blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade in an exchange of fire, killing the soldiers and wounding four others.
The attack took place in Wadi Al Gadid governorate bordering Sudan and Libya. Two smugglers were killed in clashes with guards, security officials said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has repeatedly expressed concerns about militants who have capitalised on the chaos in Libya and set up operations along the border.
Security officials say militants pay smugglers to transport weapons, including machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, to comrades in Egypt, which is facing an Islamist insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula near Israel.
Sinai militants have stepped up attacks against policemen and soldiers since then-army chief Al Sisi toppled president Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last summer and launched a fierce attacks on Islamists.
Security officials say militants operating from Libya are trying to forge ties with Islamists in the Sinai, an alliance that could prolong Egypt’s instability and scare away investors badly needed to help fix the battered economy.
Tribal smugglers said they charge up to one million Egyptian pounds ($140,000) to move weapons in four-by-four vehicles along desert routes.