Sinai is the battleground as Egypt launches airstrikes
EGYPTIAN president Mohammed Morsi fired his intelligence chief and the governor of Northern Sinai yesterday following the weekend attack on troops by suspected militants in Sinai.
Sixteen soldiers were killed at an outpost in Sinai along the border with Israel and the Gaza Strip. The incident raised questions about the competence of Egyptian forces, particularly after Israel warned several days earlier of an imminent attack. Israeli forces even killed six of the attackers as they stormed across the border.
Yesterday, helicopters carried out airstrikes against Islamic militants in Sinai, Egypt’s first in the peninsula since 1973.
The military said it deployed Apache helicopter gunships in the strikes, reportedly killing 20 “terrorists” in the Sinai village of Tumah, as well as targeting other areas in the north of Sinai thought to be militant strongholds, including Rafah.
The use of air power marked a sharp escalation in Egypt’s fight against Islamist militants who have become increasingly active in the mountainous, desert peninsula.
In a statement read out on state TV, the military said it had started a joint military-police ground operation in Sinai, backed by warplanes, to “restore stability and regain control” of the Sinai. It provided little detail.
“The armed forces and the interior ministry, backed by warplanes, started on Tuesday night implementing a plan to restore stability and security control and to pursue and target the terrorist and armed elements in Sinai,” it said.
It added that initial operations had been successful and that the campaign was continuing. “We call on the tribes and residents of Sinai to co-operate to regain security control” of Sinai, the statement added.
Sunday’s ambush was one of the bloodiest attacks in Sinai in years and the deadliest against Egyptian troops, underlining the growing lawlessness of the territory, where security forces repeatedly have been targeted by militants, some said to be loosely linked to al-Qaeda. In the latest violence, gunmen opened fire late on Tuesday night on three security checkpoints around Al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai province, some 31 miles from the borders with Gaza and Israel. One of the attacks was on the checkpoint on the main highway between Al-Arish and the town of Rafah on the Israeli border. The shootings wounded six people, among them a military officer, two soldiers, two policemen and a civilian whose condition remained critical, security officials said.
Sinai has seen lawlessness and militant violence in the past, but it took a turn for the worse after the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Amid the turmoil, police and internal security forces all but disappeared from the streets across the country. In Sinai, militants have grown steadily bolder and better armed as weapon smuggling from Libya picked up in the wake of the revolt there. Residents say the militants are far better armed than the security forces on the ground, which have repeatedly come under attack. Since Mubarak’s downfall, some of the groups have distributed fliers in Sinai urging the forces to leave the peninsula because, they say, it will be declared an Islamic state.
Under the peace treaty with Israel, a large chunk of Sinai is to be demilitarised. But in 2005 and following Mubarak’s fall last year, Israel agreed to boost the number of troops in the area, although they remain lightly armed. Sunday’s attack spurred renewed calls in Egypt to amend the 1979 treaty to allow for more troops and ammunition in Sinai.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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