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CAIRO/ISMAILIA, Egypt (Reuters) - At least 23 Egyptian soldiers were killed when two suicide car bombs tore through army checkpoints in North Sinai province on Friday, security sources said, one of the bloodiest assaults on security forces for months.
Militants are waging an insurgency in the rugged, thinly populated Sinai Peninsula and have killed hundreds of soldiers and police since 2013, when the military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi after mass protests against his rule.
The Sinai militants pledged allegiance to Islamic State in 2014 and adopted the name Sinai Province.
The two cars blew up as they passed through two checkpoints close to each other on a road outside Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip, the security sources said. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The security sources said another 26 soldiers were injured in Friday's attacks. The military put the casualties lower, and said the attacks had killed and injured a total of 26 soldiers, but did not provide a breakdown of the figure.
Within hours of the bombings security forces carried out a counter-attack and killed 40 militants suspected of involvement in the suicide bombings and destroyed six of their vehicles, according to a military statement.
The military posted photos of five dead militants in blood-soaked fatigues lying in the sand. It did not name the militants' suspected affiliation.
"Law enforcement forces in North Sinai succeeded in thwarting a terrorist attack on some checkpoints south of Rafah," a military statement said.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi describes Islamist militancy as an existential threat to Egypt. Attacks have increasingly shifted beyond the Sinai deep into Egypt's heartland, often targeting minority Coptic Christians.
Separately on Friday, a homeland security officer was shot dead outside his home in Qalubiya, a province just north of Cairo, while on his way to Friday prayers, an Interior Ministry statement said.
Responding to the Sinai attack, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail stressed the need for countries to unite against those who support terrorism and to "dry up their sources of funding," an allusion to Qatar.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke diplomatic relations with Qatar last month and are now boycotting the Gulf Arab state, which they accuse of supporting terrorism and allying with regional foe Iran. Qatar denies this.
Reporting by Ahmed Mohamed Hassan and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Mark Heinrich