CAIRO – A car bomb killed Egypt's top prosecutor on Monday, ripping through his convoy in a Cairo neighborhood, in the first assassination of a top official in the country in a quarter century, marking an apparent escalation by Islamic militants in their campaign of revenge attacks for a 2-year-old crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hisham Barakat led the widescale prosecution against figures from the Brotherhood and other Islamists, including former President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted by the military in July 2013. The crackdown against the group has seen the courts handing down mass death sentences against Morsi and other Islamists.
Militants who for years had been fighting in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, widened their insurgency after the military's ouster of Morsi, which was prompted by massive protests against his rule. Egyptian authorities accuse the Brotherhood of involvement in the violence and have branded it a terror group, a claim the group denies.
Militant attacks have focused on police and the military, but in recent months have turned to target the judiciary, with the killings of several judges in Sinai earlier this year.
The killing also recalled one of Egypt's darkest chapters in 1990s when Islamic militant groups and state security apparatus were engaged in score-settling killings for nearly a decade. In 1990, militants gunned down then-parliament speaker Rifaat el-Mahgoub in downtown Cairo, the last time a senior official was assassinated, though they made multiple subsequent attempts against other ministers until the insurgency was crushed in the late 1990s.
Monday's attack took place around 10:00 a.m. when a car laden with large amount of explosives was detonated by a remote control as Barakat's car and his entourage passed through the eastern Cairo district of Heliopolis.
The 65-year-old Barakat received multiple shrapnel wounds to the shoulder, chest and liver, according to a medical official at the nearby Nozha hospital. His two guards and five other people were also wounded by the explosion, officials said.
Hours after the attack, he was announced dead after undergoing a critical surgery, according to Egypt's state news agency MENA.
Footage from the scene of the blast showed cars charred and wrecked from the explosion, as black smoke rose from the site. Several trees had caught fire and firefighters were dousing the area to extinguish the flames.
At the scene of the bombing, an Associated Reporter saw rubble and twisted metal strewn across an entire city block. Several charred cars blocked the street and a dozen others were wrecked or damaged. In nearby buildings, ground-floor shops, apartment balconies and windows were shattered several stories up from the street. Residents, some sobbing, were going through the debris.
Security forces cordoned off the area shortly after the blast.
A senior security official said that initial investigation showed that Islamic militants along with the Muslim Brotherhood group are behind the attack. Pro-government TV networks immediately blamed the Brotherhood.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Hours later, a lesser-known Egyptian militant group calling itself "Popular Resistance in Giza" claimed responsibility for the attack in an online statement posted on its Facebook, with photographs from the site of the bombing. It said it had planted an explosive device placed under Barakat's car.
The claim could not be independently verified. Security officials said the bomb was not under the prosecutor's car. Several groups with the "Popular Resistance" name have claimed responsibility for smaller attacks, mainly targeting the police and power stations.
The attack came at a time Egyptian security forces were already on high alert on the eve of the second anniversary of massive anti-Islamist demonstrations that paved the way, days later, for the military's ouster of Morsi.
Two years ago on June 30, millions of Egyptians took to the streets, demanding that the Islamist Morsi step down over allegations that he abused power in favor of his Muslim Brotherhood group. The rallies continued until days later, the military stepped in, removed Morsi from power and jailed him at an unknown location.
Morsi's supporters responded with a campaign of street protests that frequently descended into violence. IN the ensuring crackdown, security forces killed hundreds and detained tens of thousands.
Since then, authorities have carried out mass trials and handed down death sentences to hundreds of suspects. This has brought the Egyptian judiciary and officials under international criticism. They have also been targeted in attacks by Islamic militants.
The attack on Barakat is the first major assassination attempt on a high government official since the 2013 suicide bombing targeting the then-Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. Egypt's main Islamic militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis -- which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group fighting in Iraq and Syria -- has claimed responsibility for that attack.
Now calling itself the Islamic State group's Sinai Province, the group has claimed responsibility for most of the country's major suicide bombings and assassinations. On Sunday, it released a video of a May attack that killed three judges in the northern Sinai Peninsula city of el-Arish -- the group's main base. The Sinai attack came on the same day as an Egyptian court sentenced Morsi to death over a mass prison break during 2011 uprising that eventually brought him to power.
That was Morsi's first death sentence but he is also facing several other trials on charges that carry the death penalty.