Gunmen sprayed bullets on a police minibus as it passed through a Cairo district early on Sunday, killing eight plainclothes officers in an ambush that was later claimed by the Islamic State.
It was the deadliest attack on Egypt’s security forces in the capital in months, and a sharp reminder of the continuing threat from Islamist insurgents at a time when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is under increasing scrutiny for his harsh crackdown on political dissent.
Although the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility could not be independently verified, its format and language was consistent with earlier statements from the group, which also claims to have downed a Russian passenger jet that crashed into the Sinai Desert in October, killing 224 people.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry said in a statement that four assailants opened fired on the unmarked police minibus as it passed through Helwan, an industrial center on the southern edge of greater Cairo, in the early hours of Sunday. The policemen were on routine security duties, the ministry said.
Images circulating on social media showed the bloodied bodies of the officers, dressed in shirts and jeans, slumped in and around a white vehicle that was raked with bullet holes.
In a statement that circulated on social media, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, said that “soldiers of the caliphate” carried out the attack in retaliation for the imprisonment of “pure women” in Egyptian jails — a common justification for violence by Egyptian militants.
The group identified one of the dead officers, and said the attackers had taken guns from the police before escaping unhindered. Hours later, Egyptian security officials said they had tracked the assailants to a hilly area on the edge of Helwan, which they said had been sealed off as they conducted a search.
Islamist insurgents based in Sinai have been fighting the Egyptian government for years, but the scale and frequency of attacks increased after the military ousted the elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in July 2013.
Fighting has been mostly confined to Sinai, where the Egyptian military has a heavy presence and which is mostly sealed off to the media. But violence has occasionally spilled over into Cairo, usually in the form of gun attacks and small bombings.
In November, four policemen were killed in a gun attack on a checkpoint in Cairo that was also claimed by the Islamic State.
By lunchtime on Sunday, six of the dead officers had been buried, honored with flag-draped coffins at a funeral attended by the interior minister, Maj. Gen. Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar, and a row of white-suited police commanders.
Fears over the spread of Islamic State, which is based in Syria and Iraq but also has a muscular presence in Libya, has helped ensure Western support for Mr. Sisi, even as he faces renewed criticism for a harsh, police-led crackdown on political dissent inside Egypt.
More than 1,200 people were arrested last month following public protests over the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Almost 600 of them have been formally charged, according to rights groups.
Mr. Sisi’s popularity has also been hit by public anger over repeated episodes of police brutality, often over trivial matters, that have resulted in the death of ordinary citizens. Spontaneous street protests erupted twice in recent months after officers shot and killed people, in separate incidents, following arguments over a taxi fare and a cup of tea.
The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, came under criticism from Egypt’s only media union after two journalists were arrested during a police raid on the union’s headquarters last Sunday.
The furor over the arrests, which built steadily during the week, was due to be debated in the Egyptian Parliament on Sunday, the state Al Ahram newspaper reported on its website. But most newspapers on Sunday did not publish blackened front pages to protest the arrests, as the union had previously said they would.
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