Egyptian helicopter gunships and tanks pounded suspected hideouts of Islamic militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, in what officials described as a major new offensive in the insurgent stronghold. Residents who witnessed winding columns of trucks and armored vehicles pour into the area said the operation was one of the largest there in years.
“This is by far the largest operation we have seen and the one we have been waiting for,” said Sheikh Hassan Khalaf, a tribal leader from al-Joura, one of 12 targeted villages in the area. “Starting today, you will not hear of attacks on army or police checkpoints as before. They either have to flee or get arrested,” he added.
He said helicopters had been hovering overhead since early morning, and had struck four cars of militants as they tried to flee. He said that at least 50 soldiers were going house-to-house through his village on foot, looking for militant suspects.
A security official said “dozens” of insurgent suspects were killed and wounded in the Sinai offensive, which comes two days after a failed suicide bombing targeting the country’s top policeman in Cairo. Smoke could be seen rising from the towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweyid, and troops set up a cordon to prevent militants from escaping as others combed the area, he said.
Egypt’s official news agency MENA reported that a total of six military helicopters were used to strike weapons caches and militants’ vehicles in seven villages, as part of what it described as a “campaign to wipe out terrorist hideouts.”
The army had jammed some communications in the area, and security forces took control of two telephone exchanges in order to disrupt communications between suspected militants, it added.
The security official also said troops had arrested an unidentified number of suspected militants but others managed to escape to mountainous areas in central Sinai.
In the past, militants used a vast network of underground tunnels linking Egypt with Gaza as a way to escape security crackdowns. However, over the past two months, the military has destroyed more than 80 percent of them, stemming the flow of weapons, militants and goods into Gaza, a territory under an Israeli-imposed blockade.
Another tribal leader in the area offered a different account of the operations, however. He called the raids “arbitrary,” citing one incident where army troops attacked the house of a pro-government tribal sheik in the village of al-Dhahir. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.
A leader of an ultraconservative Salafi group in el-Arish, Hamdeen Abu-Faisal, accused the government of spreading “false and fabricated reports” about targets and causalities in order to rally support from the population.