Cairo (AFP) – Cairo carried out air strikes against Islamic State group targets in Libya on Monday after the jihadists posted a video showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians.
Egypt said a “tough intervention” was needed and with France called on the UN Security Council to “take new measures” against the jihadists in neighboring Libya.
With Monday’s air strikes, Egypt opened a new front against the jihadists, who it is already battling in the Sinai Peninsula where scores of troops have been killed since the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who overthrew Morsi and has been criticized for a deadly crackdown on dissent, has presented Egypt as a key partner in international efforts against the jihadists.
Monday’s early morning air strikes hit IS camps and stores of weapons, the military said, hours after jihadists released gruesome footage of the beheadings that provoked outrage in Egypt.
Witnesses told AFP there were at least seven air strikes in Derna in the east, a hotbed of militancy since Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi was overthrown in 2011. It was not immediately clear whether other areas were also hit.
“Your armed forces on Monday carried out focused air strikes in Libya against Daesh camps, places of gathering and training, and weapons depots,” the military said in a statement, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
It was the first time Egypt announced military action against Islamist targets in its western neighbor, having previously denied it targeted militants there.
Egypt has reportedly allowed the United Arab Emirates to previously use its bases to bomb militants in Libya.
State television showed footage of Egyptian fighter jets it said were taking off to conduct the strikes.
“Avenging Egyptian blood and retaliating against criminals and killers is a duty we must carry out,” the military said.
The air strikes came hours after Sisi threatened a “suitable response” to the killings of the Coptic Christians.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was headed to Washington to take part in an “anti-terrorism” summit, the ministry said, calling for strong international action.
“Leaving matters as they are in Libya without tough intervention to curb these terrorist organisations represents a clear threat to international security and peace,” it said.
The brutal deaths of the Christians, who like thousands of poor Egyptians had traveled abroad to seek work, shocked their compatriots.
“Revenge is on the way”, read the banner on the front page of the official Al-Akhbar newspaper and both the Coptic Church and the prestigious Islamic Al-Azhar institution condemned the attack.
In the village of Al-Our in Upper Egypt, where 14 of the victims were from, devastated family members gathered in the small local church.
“My son traveled to Libya 40 days ago, he wanted to make money for his marriage,” said Boshra, whose 22-year-old son Kirolos was among the dead.
Expressing his “profound sadness” over the killings, Pope Francis said the Copts “were executed for nothing more than the fact that they were Christians”.
Egyptian television repeatedly played the video without the beheadings, showing black-clad militants leading their captives in orange jumpsuits along a beach before forcing them to kneel down.
Analysts said attacking the militants underscores Sisi’s message that Egypt is a bulwark against a shared jihadist enemy with Western countries that have been critical of his human rights record.
“These strikes elevate Egypt to a new level in confronting extremist organisations,” said Mathieu Guidere, an Islamic studies and politics professor at the University of Toulouse.
The White House led condemnation of the beheadings, saying the killers were “despicable”.
French President Francois Hollande agreed with Sisi that “the Security Council meet and that the international community take new measures to face up to this danger,” a statement from Hollande’s office said.
France is poised to sign a deal selling Egypt advanced Rafale fighter jets on Monday.
Libya’s embattled parliament, which is locked in a conflict with Islamist militias, expressed its condolences in a statement and called on the world to “show solidarity with Libya” against militants.
But a rival legislature, the General National Congress under the leadership of the Islamist Fajr Libya militia in control of Tripoli, accused Egypt of “aggression” and said the air strikes had “violated Libyan sovereignty”.
IS militants have been hammered by U.S.-led air strikes in Iraq and Syria after taking over swathes of the two countries and the group has active affiliates in Egypt and Libya.
The group, which has declared an Islamic “caliphate” in areas under its control, has become notorious for releasing videos of its brutal executions, including of British, American and Japanese hostages as well as a Jordanian pilot it captured in December.
Photo: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, pictured in Cairo on November 8, 2014, said his country reserved the right to punish IS as he called a meeting of security chiefs and declared seven days of mourning (AFP/Khaled Desouki)