CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian navy vessel was targeted on Thursday by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group, who claimed they destroyed it with a rocket while it was anchored off the Sinai peninsula's Mediterranean coast.
Egyptian military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir said the vessel caught fire in an exchange of fire with "terrorists" on the shore and that there were no fatalities among its crew members. He did not say how much damage the vessel suffered and gave no details on the type of ship or the size of its crew.
However, security officials said an unspecified number of crew members suffered injuries from the fire and that several of them jumped overboard to escape the raging fire.
The Egyptian IS affiliate, which calls itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, said it destroyed the vessel with a rocket. Its claim of responsibility came in a statement posted on Twitter accounts known to be linked to the group.
The authenticity of the statement could not be immediately verified, but it was accompanied by photos purporting to show what appears to be a rocket flying toward the vessel, a large explosion engulfing most of the boat and then black smoke rising up from the vessel.
The attack on the ship is the first of its kind by the IS affiliate in Egypt, representing a qualitative evolvement in the military capabilities of the group, whose campaign of violence has been mostly restricted to the northern part of Sinai bordering Gaza and Israel. Its claim of responsibility for Thursday's attack on the vessel is the second in as many days for major operations, or attempted ones.
On Wednesday, the military said it foiled an attempted attack on a military post on a highway linking Cairo to the Red Sea coast. The driver of a car that was carrying 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of explosives refused to stop at a checkpoint, drawing fire from troops, the military said in a statement. It then swerved off the road and the driver was killed, it added.
Egypt's Islamic State affiliate said it was behind the incident, claiming the car's driver was a suicide bomber who had detonated his explosives, killing several soldiers. The authenticity of the claim, which was denied by the military, could not be independently verified, though it was, like Thursday's, carried by Twitter accounts known to be linked to the group.
A witness, fisherman Abu Ibrahim Mohammed from the neighboring Gaza Strip, said the vessel targeted Thursday was a gunboat that was about a nautical mile off the coast when it caught fire. He did not hear the explosion but saw two smaller boats trying to put out the fire and that a third, larger one later arrived and towed the burned vessel away. Two speed boats were later seen combing the area as gunshots rang out, he said.
The vessel, according to the security officials, routinely patrols Egyptian territorial waters and has frequently been used to transport army and police personnel to mainland Egypt, the officials said. The sea route avoids the overland journey through Sinai, where Islamic militants target government forces.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
In a separate development, Egypt's interior minister, who is in charge of security, on Thursday fired the Egyptian capital's security chief — Maj. Gen. Osama Beder — less than a year after he took the job. The move followed a series of high-profile bombings in the city, including a car bomb late last month that killed the nation's chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, in the capital's Heliopolis district.
Beder will be replaced by Maj. Gen. Khaled Abdel-Al, another veteran of the nation's highly militarized police.
On Saturday, a massive car bomb devastated the Italian consulate in the heart of Cairo. An Egyptian was killed in the early morning blast that rocked much of the city of some 18 million people. No Italians were hurt in the attack.
Egypt faces threats from multiple insurgent factions, including the IS affiliate in Sinai, which the military says killed at least 17 soldiers in a July 1 assault there. Scores of militants were also killed in subsequent fighting on the day, according to the military.
Officials from several branches of Egypt's security forces previously told The Associated Press that that attack killed dozens of government troops.
On Thursday, a roadside bomb went off at a busy square also in the Heliopolis district, injuring a traffic policeman, security officials said. The bomb targeted the part of Roxy square where traffic and other policemen routinely gather.
Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.