CAIRO: Smoke billowed in the sky as Egyptian helicopter gunships rocketed suspected Islamic militant hideouts in the lawless northern Sinai Peninsula for a second day Sunday, part of the largest military offensive in the region in years, military officials said.
They say the assault aims to drive out Al-Qaeda-inspired groups from several villages in the restive border region, where Muslim militants have established strongholds and stockpiled an unprecedented amount of weapons.
Gen. Osama Askar of the 3rd Army told reporters troops had seized at least 10 shoulder-fired Sam-7 anti-aircraft missiles a day earlier. They were found in a mosque and in homes of suspected militants in the town of Sheikh Zuweyid, near the border with the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Western officials say thousands of shoulder-launched missiles went missing from Libya’s arsenals since that country’s 2011 civil war. Egyptian authorities say Libyan missiles have been smuggled into the Sinai, and some of those have gone on through underground tunnels to Gaza.
Sunday’s airstrikes targeted the villages of Al-Mahdiya and Al-Moqataa on the outskirts of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweyid. One official said U.S.-made Apache helicopters hit shacks, houses, olive farms and cars used by militants.
The strikes paved the way for a ground offensive, he added, allowing troops backed by armored vehicles to sweep homes of suspected militants. A total of nine suspected militants have been killed and nine others arrested since Saturday, he said.
In a new statement Saturday, Armed Forces spokesman Col. Ahmad Mohammad Ali said that helicopters had provided air cover for what was “the biggest security operation” in the northern Sinai in years. He said troops arrested at least nine suspected militants in at least seven villages Saturday.
Ali’s statement, posted on his official Facebook page, added 118 houses and farms used as hideouts had been demolished in the operation by Saturday.
A second military official in Cairo told Associated Press that the military was surprised by the amount and type of weapons found in the areas.
“We found heavy weapons, explosive belts for suicide bombers, mortars, RPGs, anti-aircraft missiles and maps with positions of the military in the region,” he said. “They were waging a war against us.”
He declined to give a timeframe for the offensive, saying the military would not leave until it had driven out the militants. He added that the military had a long list of wanted fighters.
Residents witnessed columns of trucks and armored vehicles pouring into the area Saturday. Some said they hadn’t seen foot soldiers in their villages in decades.
Communications were jammed for hours as authorities seized control of two telephone exchanges. All roads leading up to the northern region of the peninsula have been sealed off and troops have encircled a dozen villages.
Some local tribal leaders have expressed relief over the operation, but others remain skeptical, saying innocent men have been arrested arbitrarily.
Over the past weeks, the military has also bulldozed homes along the Gaza border and caved in tunnels beneath them in preparation for the creating of a buffer zone to reduce weapon smuggling and militants crossing.Officials say the wanted militants are believed to be responsible for a series of attacks in a region they overran after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Since the overthrow of Islamist President Mohammad Morsi on July 3, Sinai has witnessed a spike of deadly and near-daily attacks.
The Cairo-based military official accused Morsi of giving militants free reign to stockpile weaponry by making deals with them to cease attacks when he was in office in return for amnesty and a halt of military action against them. The militants, the officials say, belong to a number of well-known Al-Qaeda-inspired groups that seek the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the northern Sinai.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
An Al-Qaeda-inspired group in the peninsula claimed credit Sunday for a bombing that targeted the interior minister last week. The Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group said in a statement one of its suicide bombers was behind Thursday’s blast in Cairo targeting the convoy of Mohammad Ibrahim, who survived the attack.
The group blamed Ibrahim and army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi for the killings of hundreds of Islamist supporters of Morsi, overthrown by the military in a popularly backed coup.
“We call on all Muslims in Egypt to stay away from all military and interior ministry installations to preserve their lives,” it added.
The claim could not be verified for authenticity. If proven, the group’s claim would show it has the reach to strike in Egypt’s capital and elsewhere in the country even as the military engages it and other jihadist groups in Sinai.
Militants in Sinai previously limited their attacks to the peninsula and neighboring Israel, bombing tourist resorts in south Sinai between 2004 and 2006. They have never before claimed credit for attacks elsewhere in Egypt.
For years Sinai has defied the central government’s authority, with its Bedouin population complaining of poverty and discrimination.
The surge in militant attacks there and elsewhere around the country has raised fears of a revival of the Islamist insurgency that plagued Egypt in the 1990s.