An Egyptian military official says helicopter gunships have launched new strikes targeting militant hideouts in the northern Sinai Peninsula, on a second day of a major offensive aiming at quelling an insurgency in the lawless region.
The official said yesterday’s strikes targeted the villages of el-Mahdiya and el-Moqataa near the towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweyid on the border with the Gaza Strip. Three US-made Apache helicopters fired rockets, hitting shacks, houses and cars used by militants, the official said.
He added that the air strikes are to pave the way for a ground offensive, in which troops backed by armored vehicles would search homes of suspected militants.
The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to brief the press.
At least nine suspects were killed by strikes on Saturday
Two Egyptian soldiers were killed late on Saturday when an improvised explosive device detonated in a road in the north Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid near the border with the Gaza Strip, security sources said.
Radical Islamists in the rugged desert region adjoining Israel, who expanded into a security vacuum left by the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, have been staging almost daily assaults on security forces and other targets.
Dozens of tanks and armored vehicles backed by attack helicopters were used in Saturday’s operation near Sheikh Zuweid, a few kilometers from the Palestinian Gaza Strip, security sources said.
The army said nine militants had been arrested.
Since the army toppled Islamist Morsi on July 3, and especially since security forces killed hundreds of Islamists when they smashed protest camps in Cairo on Aug. 14, there have been online calls from Islamist radicals for wider attacks on the state.
Egyptian memories of an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s were revived on Thursday when a suicide bomber blew up a car bomb next to the interior minister’s convoy in Cairo.
A week ago, militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a ship passing through the Suez Canal on the Sinai’s western edge, vital to world trade as well as Egypt’s depleted state finances.
On Saturday, a bomb exploded at a Cairo police station for the second time in less than a week, state media said, although no one was hurt.
In addition, explosives were found on the railway line between the cities of Suez and Ismailia along the Suez Canal, but were defused before they could do damage, according to the state news agency MENA.
No one has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, although a video apparently of the Suez attack was posted on YouTube with an Islamist logo.
Yet the army-backed rulers have incensed Islamists inside Egypt and abroad with their violent crackdown on Morsi’s Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, most of whose top leaders have been arrested and accused of terrorism or inciting violence.
The Brotherhood, sworn to peaceful resistance, dismisses the accusations as a pretext for the crackdown by a “putschist regime,” and has defied the crackdown to bring thousands of protesters onto the streets across Egypt three times in eight days.
The military-backed government now also appears to be turning its sights on other groups — opposed to the Islamists — who helped topple Mubarak in 2011, hoping to establish an open civilian democracy in Egypt.