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Feb 24, 2:07 PM EST

Christians flee Egypt's Sinai after militant killings



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EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) -- Suspected Islamic militants gunned down a Christian man inside his home in northern Sinai, officials and a priest said Friday, the latest in a string of sectarian killings there that has sent hundreds of Christians fleeing and raised accusations the government is failing to protect the community.

The militants stormed the home of Kamel Youssef, a plumber, on Thursday and shot him to death in front of his wife and children in the town of el-Arish, said two security officials and the priest.

The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters, as did the priest, fearing retaliation by militants. The priest said initial reports that the man's daughter was kidnapped and killed turned out to be incorrect.

No militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack. But Egypt's Islamic State group affiliate, which is based in the Sinai Peninsula and which in December carried out a devastating suicide bombing against a Cairo church, vowed in a video earlier this week to step up attacks against the embattled Coptic Christian minority. It described them as "infidels" empowering the West against Muslims.

That stoked panic among Christians, who before Thursday's death had already seen six members of their community killed in recent weeks.

Over the past two days, around 75 Christian families - hundreds of people - have arrived from Sinai in the city of Ismailia on the Suez Canal, according to Mina Thabet, a researcher with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who visited the families.

They brought suitcases of clothes, but left most of their belongings behind, hoping to be able to return soon. Some reported receiving death threats on their cell phones.

"The scene here is really painful," Thabet said.

Christians in northern Sinai have been fleeing in waves over recent years because of militant threats, and the community that before 2011 numbered up to 5,000 people has now dwindled to fewer than 1,000, said the priest. There are no official statistics on the number of Christians in cities or across the country.

But the priest, who also left el-Arish, said the flight in recent days is unprecedented in size. He blamed lax security.

"You feel like this is all meant to force us to leave our homes," he said. "We became like refugees."

The displacement underscores what many rights activists said the failure of the Egyptian government in providing the minimum level of security to the Christians in this volatile region of northern Sinai, where the military has been battling for years against militants.

"This was a test to the government. It failed and its management of the crisis was terrible," Thabet said.

He pointed to the failure to step up security for Christians despite public threats by IS or help them as they fled. After pressure on social media, authorities agreed to put up the fleeing Christians in government housing in Ismailia.

A day before Youssef's killing, militants killed a Christian man and burned his son alive, then dumped their bodies on a roadside in el-Arish. Three other Christians in Sinai were killed earlier in drive-by shootings or attacks on their homes and shops.

Youssef Tawfiq said his father Gamal, a teacher, was shot to death on Feb. 16 by two masked gunmen 200 meters (220 yards) from a heavily fortified army post in el-Arish. He said no government official or agency provided any support to the family after his father's death.

"I feel like I am carrying a mountain over my shoulders," he said. "We loved our country but our country doesn't love us."

The Coptic Church issued a brief statement Friday and, as it traditionally does, stuck close to the government's line in the war on terrorism.

"They aim to strike our national unity ... in the face of terrorism, which has been exported to Egypt from abroad," it said.

The military's fight against the Sinai militants, who vowed allegiance to the Islamic State group, has been bitter.

Hundreds of troops have been killed, the military has razed hundreds of houses to stop alleged militant infiltration through tunnels from neighboring Gaza, and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in 2014 declared a state of emergency and curfew there after suicide bombings killed more than 30 soldiers. Still, the insurgency has shown little sign of calming.

The northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, bordering the Gaza Strip and Israel, has been a battleground since 2011, when the region sank into lawlessness during the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.

But the militant campaign accelerated after the military - then led by el-Sissi - overthrew elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

Christians, mainly belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church, make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's population and have suffered decades of discrimination and attacks by Islamic militants. Those attacks increased after 2013.

A total of 30 Christians in northern Sinai, including Copts in the military and two priests, have been killed since 2013, said the priest.

In December, an IS-affiliated suicide bomber blew himself up inside a landmark Cairo church, killing around 30 worshippers, mostly women.

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Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.

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