CAIRO: An al-Qaida-inspired group in the volatile Sinai Peninsula called on Egypt's soldiers and policemen to desert, warning them in a statement Monday that otherwise they face death at the hands of its fighters.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or the Champions of Jerusalem, said it considers Egyptian troops to be infidels because they answer to the secular-leaning military-backed government.
The group and others based in the Sinai have been blamed for a surge of attacks against security forces since a July coup toppled the country's former Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. In response, Egypt's armed forces launched a military offensive against militants in the Northern Sinai province in August.
Speaking at a public forum Monday, military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali said so far the operations have resulted in the killing of 184 militants and the arrest of 803 others. He said about 25 percent of those killed and arrested are foreign fighters, but didn't provide further details. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is believed to have ties with Palestinian militants in the neighboring Gaza Strip, and officials have said other foreign militants have found refuge in Sinai during the ongoing turmoil.
Ali also said during the military operations, troops have destroyed about 786 tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, which the government says are used to smuggle militants and weapons. The border crossing with Gaza has been mostly closed by Egypt and Israel since Hamas took over the tiny coastal territory in 2007. Gazans rely on the tunnels for access to many commercial goods.
"We have achieved great successes. We have impacted the main capabilities of the terrorists," Ali told the gathering. "There are, however, still cells in there. We will continue to deal with them with resolve and seriousness."
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis said it "will be more determined to fight" the military and police if its warning is ignored. It urged them to "repent" from participating in "this infidel bastion that is at war with God and his Prophet, and stop serving in its ranks." Its statement was dated Sunday but appeared Monday on militant websites where it and other extremist groups regularly issue messages.
The group gained notoriety after expanding its operations outside of the restive northern Sinai province. It has claimed responsibility for a September suicide bombing that targeted Egypt's interior minister, who escaped unharmed.