Egyptian forces have intensified efforts to apprehend extremist elements in the Western Desert following a deadly Friday (October 20th) attack on a contingent of policemen near Wadi al-Hitan, officials told Al-Mashareq.
Armed extremists attacked the contingent as it was on its way to raid a terrorist hideout in al-Wahat al-Bahriya, in the desert south-west of Giza, the Interior Ministry said in a Saturday statement.
Sixteen policemen were killed in the shootout, which occurred in the Kilo-135 area of al-Wahat Highway, while 13 others were wounded, the ministry said.
The wounded were evacuated from the scene, but a search is still under way for one policeman, Mohammed al-Hayes, who is still missing.
Joint army-police forces who arrived after the initial clashes killed 15 militants who launched the attack during search and comb operations in the area.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, and experts are divided as to whether al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Mourabitoun or "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS)-affiliated Jund al-Khilafah are to blame.
Col. Khaled Okasha, a retired army officer who serves on the National Council for Combating Terrorism, told Al-Mashareq he believes al-Mourabitoun was behind the attack.
"Al-Mourabitoun is led by dismissed army officer Hesham Ali Ashmawi, and its members are highly skilled and trained, having fought on Libyan soil," he said.
Investigations indicate that al-Mourabitoun is responsible for the July 19th, 2014 armed assault on a military checkpoint in al-Farafra oasis near the border with Libya in which at least 22 Egyptian soldiers were killed.
An Egyptian military court on October 11th sentenced 13 defendants to death -- 11 in absentia -- for taking part in the 2014 attack.
"The Interior Ministry forces that were targeted [on Friday] went out on a mission in the desert and a mountainous area without proper aerial protection and coverage, and did not expect to be attacked on their way," he said.
"Ashmawi might have set up surveillance posts on the highway which informed him about the passage of that force, and that was why his elements set up an ambush for it," he said.
Meanwhile, journalist Mahmoud Nasr, who specialises in covering terrorist groups, told Al-Mashareq he believes it is possible that "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS)-affiliated Jund al-Khilafah was behind the attack.
"This is due to the fact that the group has heavy weapons such as those used in the attack, including PK and DShK machine guns," he said.
"The group might have co-operated with elements that came from Libya’s Sirte after they escaped from the siege there," he said. "These elements are highly trained and capable of carrying out operations against the police."
Support for Egyptian forces
Okasha stressed that the Friday incident "will not affect the capabilities of the Egyptian police or Egyptians’ confidence in them".
"The forces are now conducting a survey of Wadi al-Hitan in full and already have developed their operations to crack down on the remaining elements that carried out the operation and find the missing officer," he said.
He noted that "the police have over the past three years dismantled 1,064 terror cells embracing more than one ideology that were planning terrorist attacks against Egyptians".
Funerals were held in several provinces for those killed, with coffins wrapped in Egyptian flags, AFP reported.
Meanwhile, statements condemning the attack and offering messages of condolence for the families of the victims and the Egyptian people have been pouring in from international organisations and foreign countries.
The UN Security Council and the EU on Saturday issued statements condemning the attack, with the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) also speaking out against it, Egypt's Ahram Online reported.
Many Arab and foreign countries also denounced the attack, offering condolences to the Egyptian people and calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.