Egypt’s army began a campaign to purge north Sinai of militants, with attack helicopters killing a reported 20 fighters, as President Mohamed Mursi fired his intelligence chief and a regional governor.
The fighting yesterday came after Mursi ordered police and the military to take “complete control” of Sinai and vowed to avenge an Aug. 5 attack in which 16 soldiers were killed during an assault on a border post. Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said Egypt had increased its troop numbers in Sinai and was bolstering intelligence efforts there.
The attack left Mursi under pressure to review Egypt’s peace accord with Israel, which he has pledged to uphold, and its relationship with the Islamic Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip. It also spotlighted the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year.
“Sinai is fertile ground for radical and violent movements because there is no state control there or a heavy military presence,” Khalil al-Anani, a political analyst at Durham University, England, said by phone. “The army’s reaction now is showing off power and revenge rather than to protect the sovereignty of the state.”
Mursi replaced the acting chief of the general intelligence service and fired the governor of north Sinai, where the Aug. 5 attack took place, his spokesman, Yasser Ali, told reporters yesterday. No group has claimed responsibility for the raid.
Unidentified militants exchanged gunfire with Egyptian forces in al-Arish, nearby Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, attacking several checkpoints late Aug.7 and yesterday, while helicopter gunships pursued masked gunmen, state media reported. The state- run Ahram Gate and Nile News said 20 militants were killed.
Security forces also engaged militants as they tried to shoot down the aircraft using heavy machine guns and artillery, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported. Tanks supported the aircraft, MENA said, adding that three members of the security forces were injured during the sweep of the area.
The peninsula has seen a marked increase in kidnappings of visitors, as well as assaults on security forces that have been alternately blamed on disgruntled Bedouins and al-Qaeda-inspired militants. Egyptian authorities have intercepted several shipments of heavy weapons, including surface-to-air rockets, believed smuggled in from Libya.
Qandil, speaking to reporters after a meeting of the newly appointed Cabinet yesterday, said Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh had called him and voiced his support for the crackdown in the Sinai. Hamas condemned the attack on the border post, the worst in the region in years.
The six attackers killed by Israelis on Aug. 5 after they crossed the border were wearing Palestinian-issued military boots and one was dressed in a military uniform, Ashraf Refai, head of the forensic team dealing with the bodies, said in an interview.
Amid concerns that the attacks would affect tourism, the governor of south Sinai, home to the Red Sea resorts, declared a state of emergency that included requiring tour buses to move in groups and under armed escort. He also closed the route linking north and south Sinai, according to an e-mailed statement from his office.
Mursi is locked in a power struggle with the military that handed him authority in June. He is trying to restore order in a nation where 18 months of unrest battered the economy while seeking to allay fears among secularist parties that his presidency will reflect the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda at the expense of others in the country.
Ali said Aug. 7 that Egypt sticks by its international agreements “but at the same time serves the interests of the state and the Egyptian people.” The Israeli-Egyptian peace accord limits the number of Egyptian troops in Sinai.
Mursi’s recent meetings with top Hamas officials had signaled a shift in Egypt’s position toward the Islamist movement labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel and the European Union. Egypt appeared to be easing some restrictions on Gazans in tandem with the meetings, a shift that may be stymied after the Sinai attack. The military said the assailants may have gotten support from people within Gaza.
“Such violence does Mursi more harm that it benefits him, as it pushes” him to take action against the perpetrators, al- Anani said. “Mursi doesn’t have full power that enables him to take independent decisions.”
As part of the security crackdown, authorities also focused on tunnels used to smuggle goods into Gaza. Nile News, citing an unidentified security official, reported yesterday that authorities had begun closing the tunnels. The move could cripple the Hamas government by depriving Gaza residents of their main pipeline for goods such as fuel, clothing and food.
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