, CAIRO, May 23- Security forces in the Sinai peninsula killed the leader of Egypt’s deadliest militant group, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, along with three senior members overnight, officials said early Friday.
Several high ranking security officials confirmed the death of Shadi el Menei, considered to be the head of the Sinai based Ansar Beit al Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem), but it was not immediately possible to obtain confirmation from independent sources.
The Al Qaeda inspired militant group has spearheaded a wave of attacks targeting security forces since the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July.
Security forces opened fire on the four men as they were in a car in central Sinai and about to carry out an attack on a gas pipeline, officials said.
However, other security officials said Menei and five other members of the group were shot by unknown assailants.
Since Morsi’s ouster, militants have stepped up their attacks against security forces in retaliation to a state crackdown on Morsi supporters that has left more than 1,400 killed and at least 15,000 jailed.
Ansar Beit al Maqdis has claimed some of the deadliest and high profile attacks on Egyptian security forces, including a failed assassination attempt against the interior minister in September.
The group is thought to have been founded primarily by Egyptians in 2011 after the uprising that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak.
In recent months, the group has also seen support coming from the Nile Delta and some areas of Cairo, experts say.
Before Morsi’s ouster, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis mainly targeted Israel, through attacks on gas pipelines supplying the Jewish state and in January its fighters fired a rocket at Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat.
In April, the US department of State has designated the group a “foreign terrorist organisation”.
One of the militant group’s founders, Tawfiq Mohamed Fareej, was accidentally killed in March, when a car accident set off a bomb he was carrying.
Most of the militant attacks have been taking place in the north of the mainly desert Sinai Peninsula, but militants have extended their reach to Cairo and the Nile Delta, carrying out a series of high profile attacks in the heart of the capital.
A little known jihadist group, Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) has also claimed several attacks on police in Cairo.
The government says the militants have killed about 500 people, most of them security personnel.
On May 26-27, Egypt will hold a presidential election widely expected to bring to power ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted Morsi in July.
Sisi’s only rival in the election is leftist leader and longtime opposition figure Hamdeen Sabbahi.
The supporters of retired field marshal Sisi see in him a tough leader capable of restoring security and reviving an economy badly hit by three years of turmoil.
But his opponents say that should he win the election, Egypt would see a return to autocratic rule.