Copt survivors recount horror

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Relatives of Coptic Christians who were killed during a bus attack, surround their coffins, during their funeral service, at Abu Garnous Cathedral in Minya, Egypt, Friday, May 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO, May 28, (Agencies): Video interviews with survivors of a deadly attack by Islamic militants on a bus taking Egyptian Christians to a remote desert monastery are painting a picture of untold horror, with children hiding under their seats to escape gunfire.

The videos surfaced on social media networks on Sunday, two days after 29 were killed in the attack on a desert road south of the capital.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack on Friday. It was the fourth attack against Christians in Egypt since December to be claimed by the IS. The string of attacks have killed more than 100 and injured scores.

One survivor, a small boy who seemed to be about six, said his mother pushed him under her seat and covered him with a bag. A young woman speaking from her hospital bed said the assailants ordered the women to surrender their jewelry and money before they opened fire, killing the men first and then some of the women. The woman said the gunmen were masked and wore military uniforms.

Bishop Makarios, the top Coptic Orthodox cleric in Minya, the province where the attack took place, said the assailants told Christian men they ordered off the bus they would spare their lives if they converted to Islam. “They chose death,” said Makarios, who has been an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of anti-Christian violence in Minya, where Christians account for more than 35 percent of the population, the highest anywhere in Egypt. “We take pride to die while holding on to our faith,” he said in a television interview aired late Saturday.

Makarios confirmed that the assailants stole the women’s jewelry and his contention that the men were ordered off the bus before being killed was also confirmed by a video clip purportedly in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

This video showed at least four or five bodies of adult men lying on the desert sand next to the bus; women and other men screamed and cried as they stood or squatted next to the bodies. Egypt responded to the attack with a wave of airstrikes against suspected militant bases where the military said the perpetrators trained.

A manhunt for the assailants in the vast deserts to the west of the site of the attack has so far yielded no arrests.

In the Vatican, Pope Francis, for the second day in a row, expressed his solidarity with Egypt’s Coptic Christians following Friday’s attack. He led thousands of people in prayer Sunday for the victims, who Francis said were killed in “another act of ferocious violence” after having refused to renounce their Christian faith.

Speaking from his studio window over St Peter’s Square, he said: “May the Lord welcome these courageous witnesses, these martyrs, in his peace and convert the hearts of the violent ones.” Egypt’s response to the latest deadly attack against its sizable Christian minority — a wave of airstrikes against Islamic militant installations in eastern Libya — may be a sign of both despair and resolve. The Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt has for years been fighting Islamic militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula.

The government had so far succeeded in containing them in that remote and rugged northeast corner of the country and foiled repeated attempts by the militants to seize and keep territory. But the violence has now spilled over onto the mainland, with an increasing number of high-profile attacks, including a total of four that targeted Christians since December.

The string of attacks has highlighted an ongoing vulnerability and a worrying lack of reliable intelligence by Egypt’s robust security forces. Unlike the attacks in Sinai, which have mostly targeted soldiers, police and suspected collaborators, the attacks on Christians have attracted unwanted international attention and stymied Egypt’s desperate efforts to revive its tourism industry, a traditional backbone of its now-ailing economy.

Egypt’s general-turned president has, since taking office in 2014, declared uncompromising resolve to defeat the militants. He also seems willing to sideline and disenfranchise almost all Islamic groups with a political agenda, arguing that violent and peaceful Islamic groups feed off each other. He has backed up his vow to restore security to this nation of 93 million with massive arms deals that added French fighter-jets, helicopter carriers as well as German submarines to Egypt’s already huge arsenal of Soviet-era weapons and US-made F-16 warplanes, Apache gunships and Abrams tanks. Can the attacks on Christians be stopped? The short answer is probably not, but the government can hope to reduce their frequency.

El-Sisi and his military say the attackers have come from eastern Libya, sneaking into Egypt across the porous desert border. He claims the security forces have over the past two years intercepted some 1,000 four-wheel drive vehicles that militants used to enter Egypt; 300 were caught in the last three months alone. His military has cryptically said airstrikes in Libya were continuing “day and night” but without giving details. Egypt, in the meantime, has pushed for lifting the international arms embargo against Libya, hoping that such action would give its main ally in Libya, Gen Khalifa Hifter, a decisive advantage in his three-year campaign against Libya’s various Islamic militant groups. Ominously, security officials say airstrikes against suspected militant training bases in Sudan, Egypt’s southern neighbor, could not be ruled out.

El-Sisi said on Friday he would strike at militant bases wherever they might be if militants who trained there launch attacks inside Egypt. Egypt’s relations with Sudan are currently fraught with tension over a long-running border dispute, making it easier for Cairo to justify military action there. Already, according to the officials, the military is closely monitoring the remote desert triangle where the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan meet in Egypt’s remote southwest corner.

At home, the officials said a host of measures were under consideration to better protect Christians — whose religious calendar is packed full of vulnerable pilgrimages to monasteries and ancient churches to celebrate saints or venerate sites where the Holy Family sojourned during their biblical stay in Egypt. One measure is to either suspend such pilgrimages or closely coordinate the movement of pilgrims with security forces, a tactic that was successfully used to protect foreign tourists traveling overland in southern Egypt during an earlier Islamic insurgency in the 1990s. Another option is to significantly step up security outside churches and roads leading to monasteries, which are mostly remote and deep in the desert.

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