CAIRO — Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Saturday that an assault on an army checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 31 troops was a "foreign-funded operation" and vowed to take drastic action against militants.
In thundering remarks delivered before cameras ahead of a military funeral for the slain troops, el-Sissi said there are foreign powers that want to "break the back of Egypt," without elaborating. He vowed to take drastic measures to uproot the militants and said Egypt is engaged in an "extensive war" that will last a long time.
"There is a big conspiracy against us," he said while standing with army commanders ahead of the funeral.
Militants launched a complex assault on the checkpoint Friday that involved a car bomb possibly detonated by a suicide attacker, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs placed to target rescuers.
Egypt declared a state of emergency and imposed a 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew in the restive northern part of the peninsula after Friday's assault, the deadliest against the army in decades.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but it bore the hallmarks of the extremist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has carried out several attacks on security forces since the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last year amid massive protests against him.
El-Sissi said the aim of the attack was to "break the will of Egypt and the Egyptians as well as the will of the Egyptian army, which is considered a pillar of Egypt."
He called on Egyptians "to be aware of what is being hatched against us" and to be "vigilant and steadfast with the army and the police."
"All that is happening to us is known to us and we expected it and talked about it before July 3," he said, referring to the day last year when he overthrew Morsi. At the time el-Sissi was defense minister and army chief.
He claimed some success in the fight against militants, saying "dozens of terrorists have been killed in the past weeks and months... hundreds of terrorists have been liquidated."
Islamic militants have been battling security forces in Sinai for a decade, but the violence spiked after Morsi's overthrow. The attacks have also spread to other parts of Egypt, with militants targeting police in Cairo and the Nile Delta.
The militants have portrayed the attacks as retaliation for a sweeping crackdown by security forces in which hundreds of Morsi supporters have been killed in street clashes and some 20,000 people have been arrested.
The government has blamed much of the violence on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which it blacklisted as a terrorist group last year. The Brotherhood, which renounced violence decades ago, has condemned the attacks and denied any involvement.
A Muslim Brotherhood alliance issued a statement on Friday offering sincere condolences to the "families of the martyrs and victims of the treacherous coup."
It said the soldiers were killed in a "new massacre added to the black record of the military junta that has thrown the army into the political arena and put the Sinai under siege, isolation and schemes of displacement."
El-Sissi, earlier in the day, presided over an extraordinary meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to discuss the recent developments in Sinai.
The Council issued a statement reaffirming the armed forces' "determination to eradicate terrorism from this precious part of Egypt."
"The Council agreed on a plan formulated by the armed forces to combat terrorism in Sinai and other strategic areas," the statement said without elaboration.