Egypt Helicopters Hit Sinai Militants as Islamist Jailed

Egyptian helicopters fired on suspected militants in the restive north Sinai region and killed at least eight, as authorities stepped up their fight against Islamists following President Mohamed Mursi’s ouster.

Separately, a military court in the port city of Suez sentenced a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to life in prison for attacking armed forces personnel, while 51 others received sentences ranging from five to 15 years, military spokesman Ahmed Ali said in comments posted on his official Facebook page yesterday. Earlier, state media reported that 11 members of the organization had been sentenced to life in prison, and no explanation was given for the changed number.

The sentences dealt another blow to the Islamist group that backed Mursi as it faces the toughest crackdown against it in decades. The court decision came two months after what it has described as a military “coup” to depose the country’s first freely elected civilian president.

Yesterday’s air strikes near the north Sinai town of Sheik Zuweyid, the military court convictions and the pro-Mursi rallies are part of a broad set of political challenges and divisions confronting Egypt. The interim government, backed by the military, has vowed to press ahead with a transition to democracy while the Islamists argue Mursi’s overthrow robbed Egyptians of their hopes for a democratic state. Mursi is to stand trial on charges of inciting violence that led to the death of protesters.

‘Improving Security’

Egyptian authorities detect improving security, interim President Adly Mansour said in an interview on state television broadcast late last night.

“If the security situation continues to gradually improve, I expect, God willing, that the state of emergency won’t be extended,” he said.

The government will continue to pursue its political road map, he said, even if “some forces, domestically or outside, will exert their utmost efforts to obstruct implementation.” The administration has recently endorsed a package of measures to boost the economy and to reach economic growth of about 3.8 percent in 2013-2014, he said.

Since Mursi’s ouster, the military has stepped up its efforts in Sinai, a desert peninsula that had grown increasingly lawless during his tenure. The attacks intensified after Mursi’s ouster, with militants striking almost daily at security forces, police stations and other installations in an eruption of violence that included the killing of 25 policemen last month.

The man allegedly behind that attack, Adel Habara, was arrested and ordered jailed for 15 days pending investigations, the prosecutor-general’s office said in a faxed statement.

Arms Caches

The Apache helicopter strike targeted suspected militants, Mohamed Saeed, head of criminal investigation in the region, said by phone. The operation also destroyed arms caches belonging to the insurgents, Ahram Gate reported, citing an unidentified military official. Twenty other militants were injured, MENA reported.

The military said in an e-mailed statement that the assault left 20 “terrorists” dead or wounded in strikes on the villages of al-Toma and al-Mokati’a. Another strike destroyed a vehicle carrying three fleeing armed militants, the military said.

In tandem with its offensive in Sinai, the government has pushed ahead with a campaign against the Brotherhood, arresting hundreds of its members, including top leaders. Clashes after police broke up pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo last month sparked violence that killed about 1,000 people, most in the span of a week.

Broadcasts Curtailed

The declaration of a state of emergency last month, a curfew that’s been gradually relaxed and stepped-up efforts by security forces have all curbed the Brotherhood’s ability to draw into the streets the masses it mustered for earlier demonstrations.

Officials have also put Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television in its sights. A Cairo administrative court ordered the station’s local affiliate off the air yesterday, along with three other channels authorities said were “fabricating information” and “defaming” the will of Egyptians by saying Mursi’s ouster was a coup, the court said in an e-mailed statement. Al-Jazeera is owned by the Qatar government, which had backed Mursi during his one year in office.

Days earlier, several cabinet ministers said the Al-Jazeera affiliate represented a threat to national security and ordered action be taken against it, arguing it was operating without the necessary approval.

The local affiliate’s correspondent in the Nile delta city of Beni Suef, Mohamed Rabea, was ordered held 15 days pending investigation into allegations including inciting violence and burning and looting a police station. Rabea also served as the head of the press office of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, in the city, the prosecutor-general’s office said in a statement.