CAIRO: Egypt’s military said its forces redeployed Wednesday to press a campaign against Islamist militants in the Sinai and that 11 so-called terrorists have been killed since operations were launched.
Witnesses reported seeing at least four tanks headed west, away from the theater of operations, but troops and vehicles were fanning out near the borders with Gaza and Israel to the east.
Confusion and inflated claims have shrouded the unprecedented campaign in the lawless peninsula that began after militants killed 16 soldiers in an Aug. 5 attack on a border outpost.
“The armed forces, in cooperation with the police, have arrested 23 people, killed 11 terrorists and wounded one since the start of Operation Eagle,” the military said of the campaign involving tanks and helicopters.
“The armed forces will continue Operation Eagle to pursue the terrorists and will start Wednesday morning to redeploy its forces to complete its pursuit of the fugitive terrorists and finish off all terrorist cells in the Sinai.”
The statement contradicted earlier claims of having killed 20 militants in helicopter strikes following the attack.
The early-August attack on the outpost, the latest in a string of Islamist militant attacks on soldiers and police in the lawless peninsula, prompted President Mohammad Mursi to sack his intelligence chief and defense minister.
Along with the military campaign, the government is now trying to reach out to Sinai’s disaffected bedouin population. Unlike the tourism-rich south, northern Sinai is underdeveloped and a haven for smugglers and militants.
The president’s office has helped a delegation of hard-line Islamists travel to Sinai to reach out to Islamists there who complain of being unfairly targeted in the crackdown. Security forces had briefly detained nine Salafist Islamists they claimed were terrorists.
Nizar Ghorab, an Islamist lawyer and part of the delegation, said they had approached the presidency for help and were assisted with cars to travel to the Sinai.
“The Salafists refused mediation through the Interior Ministry or intelligence, so we approached contacts in the presidency, who helped us,” he said.
Ghorab said the delegation included Islamists who had been jailed alongside former bedouin militants, now members of a group called the Salafi Jihad, which has issued a statement denying any links with attacks on security forces. “Our visit had one objective. Not to drag innocent Salafist jihadists into conflict with the military and police,” said Ghorab.
“We told them we are trying to stop any violations, and meanwhile you should not react to them.”
Mursi’s office was not immediately available for comment.
The military campaign is the largest deployment of soldiers in the Sinai since the Jewish state handed back the land under a 1979 peace treaty that curbed Egypt’s military presence in the peninsula.
Since Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in early 2011, Islamist militants, drawn mostly from Sinai’s disaffected bedouin population, have exploited a security vacuum to launch attacks against security forces and Israel.