A police patrol came under fire from “heavy weapons” while on its way to raid a militant hideout and training camp, the ministry said, adding that operations are ongoing to track down militants who escaped.
Clashes in the same area took place in June, during which one militant was killed, and in September 2015, killing eight.
The militants’ weakness in the previous two clashes may have led security forces to underestimate their strength this time, said retired police Brig. Gen. Khaled Okasha.
Retired army Maj. Gen. Hisham Al-Halabi said the desert location, with difficult terrain near important urban areas, suggests the involvement of foreign actors. Okasha agreed, saying the militants were most likely part of Al-Mourabitoun, which is affiliated to Al-Qaeda in Libya and was formed by Hisham Ashmawi, a former Egyptian officer, in August 2013.
Al-Halabi said Cairo’s mediation in the conflicts in Palestine, Libya and Syria may have pushed regional actors that support terrorist groups to urge them to escalate attacks inside Egypt to drain and preoccupy the authorities months before presidential elections.
Okasha said a delay in an official statement from Cairo helped spread rumors that about 55 policemen were killed.