CAIRO: Security forces backed by armored vehicles and helicopters Monday stormed a town south of Cairo that had been held for over two months by militants loyal to the ousted Islamist president, swiftly taking control despite some resistance from gunmen.
The predawn operation to retake Dalga in Minya province underlined the resolve of the military-backed government to pursue militants behind a wave of violence in several parts of the country following the removal of Mohammad Morsi in a July 3 military coup.
Minya in particular suffered a collapse of security, with militants torching and looting courthouses, churches, local government buildings and police stations.
Army troops are also going after militants in the strategic Sinai Peninsula, where attacks on security forces have grown more frequent, and deadlier, since Morsi’s ouster.
Dalga, some 300 kilometers south of Cairo, attracted nationwide attention because militants there threw out the local police force and took over the town after Morsi’s ouster.
Supporters of the deposed president touted Dalga as a place where opposition to the coup was universal. The pro-government media, however, has been urging authorities to assert its authority and rid the town of “terrorists.”
Many of Dalga’s minority Christians, about 20,000 of the town’s 120,000 residents, have been paying militants for their protection. One of two churches torched by the militants in August is thought to be 1,600 years old. Remains of revered religious figures buried in the church were exhumed and scattered, and ancient icons were taken away.Local activists Adel Shafiq in Dalga and Ezzat Ibrahim in nearby Malawi said a joint force of army and police entered Dalga before dawn Monday. Their arrival, the activists said, was followed by about 10 minutes of intense gunfire, followed by sporadic bursts of heavy shooting as government forces began house-to-house searches to arrest militants.
A total of 88 suspected militants were arrested out of a list of 312 wanted men, according to security officials in Minya. Two army helicopters were flying low over the town as forces sealed off all entrances and ordered residents to stay indoors, according to the activists and security officials. The officials said around 11 people were injured by bird shot or treated for tear gas inhalation during the clashes.
However, many of the town’s top Islamists appear to have fled just before the start of the operation, the security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Rev. Ioannis of the town’s Coptic Orthodox church said many residents knew the operation was imminent from the night before and that Islamists used loudspeakers on mosque minarets to warn of an assault hours before it began.
“I am so happy and relieved they are here, anyway,” he said.
Minya’s security chief, Osamah Mutwali, said army troops and police were in control of the town and would remain there until law and order were fully restored.
Also Monday, suspected militants set off a bomb in the northern Sinai as a bus of police conscripts drove by, wounding nine of them, security officials said.