Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Precise details of the bloody attacks that took place in Sheikh Zuwaid, near the Egyptian border with Gaza, on August 24 have been obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat from eyewitnesses to the event. The attack led to the deaths of a number of gunmen.
Eyewitness accounts reveal that one of the fighters concealed his identity behind “a red niqab,” while another attempted to hide among a group of women. Twelve officers have been accused of being involved in “terrorism,” while the arrest of a retired US serviceman was also announced, although the precise nature of his involvement was not immediately clear.
Citizens of Sheikh Zuwaid, which is roughly 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, witnessed a fierce battle between armed elements and security forces earlier this week. This was part of operations that have been ongoing since Tuesday, according to local eyewitnesses who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat.
The witnesses recounted precise details about a car bomb that exploded in front of the Sheikh Zuwaid police department, confirming that it was a stolen ambulance.
“The armed elements first began to open fire on the [police] department from the roof of a building opposite it, about 400 meters away,” one citizen explained. “After that, the army commanded citizens over a loudspeaker to vacate the area surrounding the station.”
He added: “After this, an ambulance stopped in front of the police department under the pretense of changing a tire. Two bombs were planted, which detonated directly after the ambulance left. [Security] forces then opened fire on the ambulance, which contained another two bombs. The devices exploded. This killed and burned those inside the vehicle—three individuals, according to the heads that were found.”
The eyewitness added that a number of employees at the education administration building in Sheikh Zuwaid, which is adjacent to the police station, fled during the exchange of fire.
Before they could get to safety, six militants took the civilian employees inside the building hostage. At that point, security forces opened fire on the insurgents, killing two and arresting four.
The source also noted the arrest of a retired US serviceman in the vicinity of the attacks.
Another eyewitness told Asharq Al-Awsat of the state of fear and panic that prevailed among civilian residents during the attack. She heard screams from distressed civilians, especially from a nearby health center that specializes in dealing with pregnant women.
Local residents also recounted that clashes between security forces and insurgents had taken place in the market on Tuesday. A bomb exploded, injuring two individuals including a fifteen-year-old boy. No other civilians were reported to have been injured.
Officials from the North Sinai Security Directorate announced that that they had “arrested 12 individuals suspected to have been involved in the blast.”
In a statement to the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA), a security source confirmed that an American citizen was among those arrested. The US citizen was reportedly in possession of a map that contained the locations of police sites. The source stressed that all necessary legal procedures were being taken regarding the detained suspects.
The security source continued: “The American officer detained yesterday in Sheikh Zuwaid turns out to be 55-year-old James Henry. He is interested in collecting historical documents about Sinai. Documents marking historic locations in Sinai were seized, as well as papers containing details of some attacks launched by terrorists.”