Egypt army declares success in Sinai
Published Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Updated 5:12pm: Egypt's army declared tentative victory in a crackdown on Islamist militants in Sinai Wednesday, hours after state television reported the military killed 20 militants in unprecedented air strikes.
The campaign to uproot the militants was launched on Tuesday, two days after gunmen ambushed a border guard outpost near Israel's border and killed 16 soldiers, the military said in a statement.
"Elements from the armed forces and interior ministry supported by the air force began a plan to restore security by pursuing and targeting armed terrorist elements in Sinai, and it has accomplished this task with complete success," it said.
It would continue "continue implementing this plan," it added in a statement, which did not provide details of the operation.
State news agency MENA gave a conflicting account of how the militants were killed, however.
"Terrorist elements fired rockets and shells and heavy machine guns... at the aircraft combing the area, but did not hit the aircraft, and ground forces then dealt with them and killed a number of them," the agency reported.
The reported air strikes in Tumah village – the first in the peninsula for decades – came as security forces massed near Rafah on the Gaza border for what they called a decisive confrontation with the militants.
A senior military official in Sinai confirmed the state television report and said "20 terrorists were killed" in Apache helicopter raids and when soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division stormed Tumah.
He said the militants were trying to escape when the helicopter targeted their vehicles.
Other security officials in the north of the peninsula reported airstrikes near the town of Sheikh Zuwayid, close to the village.
Overnight, unknown assailants attacked four security checkpoints near the town of El-Arish, security officials said.
The interior ministry said three policemen were wounded.
The strikes came a day after the military held a funeral for the 16 soldiers who died in Sunday's attack amid widespread calls for vengeance.
The soldiers were killed when the militants raided a border guard base under the cover of mortar fire, and commandeered a military vehicle into Israel before they were stopped by an Israeli helicopter strike.
Israel stepped up pressure on Egypt's government to get a grip on lawlessness near the border, despite Egypt requiring Israeli permission to send forces to the Sinai region.
A 1979 peace treaty between the two states prohibits Egypt from deploying a large military presence in the Sinai, restricting Cairo's ability to deal with rogue militants.
The Sinai attacks prompted Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood to call for a review of the treaty with Israel to allow Egypt to deploy forces in the region at its will.
The military response focused immediately on Sheikh Zuwayid, a town that has come under the control by Bedouin tribesmen as the authorities lost their hold over swathes of northern Sinai following the overthrow last year of President Hosni Mubarak.
The economically deprived town has come to rely heavily on profits from smuggling goods and people through tunnels into Gaza since the Palestinian territory was cut off from Israel.
In al-Arish, a town relatively developed compared to others in the region, residents poured onto the streets overnight to demand better protection from the government and arms to defend themselves after the armed men that attacked the town's checkpoints.
One of the checkpoints targeted on Wednesday had been attacked 28 times before since the uprising, the Egyptian state news agency MENA reported.
Security forces closed Arish's main highway shortly after the start of the military operation. Power, Internet and mobile phone networks in the area were shut down.
Mubarak's government was a close Israeli ally, and cooperated with the Jewish state to secure the frontier region.
The revolt in 2011 made way for Egypt's first free leadership vote which brought into office an Islamist whose commitment to security cooperation with the Jewish state has yet to be tested.
The Brotherhood blamed Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad, for the attacks in Sinai, stating it was an attempt to undermine Egypt's revolution.
Israel denied the charges.