Sisi Says Battle Against Sinai Militants “Long and Hard”

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Published Sunday, February 1, 2015

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Saturday the battle against jihadist insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula would be a long and hard one, as violence there continues unabated.

His comments came as a Cairo court banned the armed wing of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, declaring it a "terrorist" organization after accusations it backs militant attacks in Sinai.

Even though Hamas has time and again denied all such accusations, the group, an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood which the Egyptian authorities have also declared a terrorist group, has been systematically repressed since the army ousted one of its leaders, Mohammed Mursi, from the presidency in 2013.

Sisi spoke following a meeting with his top brass two days after militants killed 30 people and wounded dozens in attacks, including a car bombing, in North Sinai.

Thursday's attacks were claimed by militants from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group.

Subsequent clashes between the army and militants killed two children on Friday.

Meanwhile on Saturday, an interior ministry employee was shot in the head in North Sinai's regional capital of al-Arish.

"The battle will be difficult, hard and hellish, and it will be long," Sisi said in remarks on state television.

Flanked by his top generals and occasionally raising his voice in anger, Sisi said "we will not abandon Sinai to anyone."

He also announced the creation of a unified anti-terrorist military command, which military sources said would expand operations in Sinai and be allocated more weapons and troops.

Sisi also repeated accusations that the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood is behind the violence, a claim the group denies.

Late Saturday, security sources said the army fired on "a car driven by a suicide bomber and blew it up as it approached a military checkpoint" in Sheikh Zuweid, east of al-Arish.

The sources also reported clashes between soldiers and gunmen south of Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip.

The clashes came hours after an Egyptian court ruled on a complaint from a lawyer that Hamas’s military wing, Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, was directly involved in "terrorist operations" in the Sinai.

A court official said the lawyer also accused the movement of using tunnels under the common border to smuggle arms used in attacks against the police and army.

Since Egypt's military ousted Mursi in 2013, the authorities have accused Hamas of aiding the jihadists. Egypt's military says it has destroyed more than 1,600 tunnels since then.

Hamas 'has conducted attacks'

In the ruling, the judge said "the documents submitted by the plaintiff to the court showed that the organization has conducted attacks... that targeted the military and the Egyptian police and facilities."

There was no immediate reaction from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades itself, but a source close to the militant group said "Egypt is no longer a mediator between us and the Israeli occupier."

Despite worsening relations between Hamas and Sisi, the former army chief, Cairo has been mediating between Hamas and Israel, including during last summer's Israeli assault against Gaza.

Hamas, meanwhile, denounced the Egyptian ruling as "a dangerous political decision that serves the interests of the occupier," referring to the Zionist state of Israel.

The government declared a state of emergency in parts of North Sinai after an October 24 suicide attack near al-Arish killed 30 soldiers in the deadliest assault on security forces since Mursi's ouster.

Cairo also decided to create a buffer zone along the border with Gaza to prevent militants infiltrating from the enclave.

In early January, Egypt began work on doubling the width of the buffer zone and last week the state of emergency was extended by three months.

Mursi’s trial

Meanwhile, an Egyptian court on Saturday set May 15 for a verdict on charges against Mursi, who has been accused of spying for Hamas, a judicial source said.

The Cairo Criminal Court will rule in the case — involving Mursi and 35 others — of spying for Hamas, the source, who requested anonymity, told Anadolu news agency.

Mursi and 35 co-defendants, including leading members of the Brotherhood group, face charges of "conspiring" with the Palestinian resistance group and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement to carry out "terrorist acts" inside Egypt.

Earlier this month, the court set April 21 for a ruling in another case, involving Mursi and 14 other co-defendants, all of whom stand accused of inciting the murder of demonstrators outside the presidential palace in eastern Cairo.

Mursi also stands trial — along with 130 other Brotherhood members and leaders — on charges of breaking their jail cells during the 2011 uprising that brought the rule of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak to an end.

Since Mursi’s ouster, Sisi’s regime has clamped down severely on Brotherhood supporters. The crackdown has left at least 1,400 people dead and more than 15,000 imprisoned, with hundreds sentenced to death in trials the United Nations described as "unprecedented in recent history.”

(AFP, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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