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54 Egyptian policemen killed in ambush during raid on militants southwest of Cairo

54 Egyptian policemen killed in ambush during raid on militants southwest of Cairo
The coffin of a police captain killed in a firefight in the al-Wahat al-Bahriya area in Giza province, during his funeral in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (Alaa Elkassas / Associated Press)

At least 54 policemen, including 20 officers and 34 conscripts, were killed when a raid on a militant hideout southwest of Cairo was ambushed, officials said Saturday. The ensuing firefight was one of the deadliest for Egyptian security forces in recent years.

Two police officials told the Associated Press that the exchange of fire began late Friday in the al-Wahat al-Bahriya area in Giza province, about 84 miles southwest of Cairo.

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They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the 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 counterterrorism 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 policemen 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.

The last time Egypt's security forces suffered such heavy losses 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. However, the army said only 17 soldiers and over 100 militants were killed.

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 counterterrorism agents failed to inform the military of the operation or include them.

No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore all the hallmarks of Islamic State. A local affiliate of the extremist group is spearheading an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.

The United States condemned the attack in a statement issued by the State Department, offering "profound condolences to the families of the deceased and the government and people of Egypt ... at this difficult time."

The incident comes a few days after militants staged a brazen daylight attack in the heart of el-Arish, the largest city in the Sinai Peninsula, attacking a church and a nearby bank and reportedly making away with some $1 million. Seven people were killed in the Monday attack.

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UPDATES:

11 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the firefight and victims, context and after the State Department's response.

4:10 a.m.: This article was updated to raise the death toll from 14 to 55 policemen.

This article was originally published at 12:10 a.m.

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