At least 54 police, including 20 officers and 34 conscripts, were killed when a raid on a militant hideout south-west of Cairo was ambushed, according to officials. The ensuing firefight was one of the deadliest for Egyptian security forces in recent years.
Two police officials told the Associated Press on Saturday that the exchange of fire began late Friday in the al-Wahat al-Bahriya area in Giza province, about 135km (84 miles) south-west of Cairo. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief media.
The firefight began when security forces acting on intelligence moved against a militants’ hideout in the area. Backed by armored personnel carriers and led by senior counter-terrorism officers, the police contingent drew fire and rocket-propelled grenades, according to the officials.
The officials said what happened next is not clear, but added that the force likely ran out of ammunition and that the militants captured several police and later killed them.
The officials said the police force appeared to have fallen into a carefully planned ambush set up by the militants. The death toll could increase, they added.
Those killed included two police brigadier-generals, a colonel and 10 lieutenant colonels.
Egypt’s interior ministry, which is in charge of police, announced a much lower death toll, saying in a statement read over state television that 16 were killed in the shootout. It added that 15 militants were killed or injured, later releasing photos of some of them.
The last time Egypt’s security forces suffered such a heavy loss of life was in July 2015 when militants from the extremist Islamic State group carried out a series of coordinated attacks, including suicide bombings, against army and police positions in the Sinai peninsula, killing at least 50.
An official statement issued Saturday said Friday’s incident would be investigated, suggesting that the heavy death toll may have been partially caused by incompetence, intelligence failures or lack of coordination. The officials said prosecutors will look into whether the police’s counter-terrorism agents failed to inform the military of the operation or include them.
Two audio recordings purportedly by police who took part in the operation circulated online late Friday. One police officer, apparently using a two-way radio, was heard in the nearly two-minute recording pleading for help from a higher-ranking officer.
“We are the only ones injured, sir,” the officer said. “We were 10 but three were killed. After their injury, they bled to death, sir.”
“They took all the weapons and ammunition,” he added, “We are now at the foot of a mountain.”
The second recording was purportedly by a police officer warning others. “I can’t identify any direction. Only planes can see us. Take care every one,” he was heard saying, adding that militants were pursuing them. The authenticity of the recordings could not be immediately verified.
No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore all the hallmarks of the Isis group. A local affiliate of the extremist group is spearheading an insurgency whose epicentre is in the Sinai peninsula, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Attacks by militants have significantly increased since the 2013 overthrow by the military of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
The country has been under a state of emergency since April, following a spate of suicide bombings targeting minority Christians that have killed more than a 100 since December. The attacks were claimed by Isis.