Weeks before scheduled presidential elections in Egypt, the army launched a major offensive against militants in northern Sinai who have staged a seven-year insurgency against the military there.
Army spokesman Colonel Tamer el-Rifai announced in a strongly worded televised statement Friday morning that the military and police forces were initiating a large-scale security operation. He said that, in addition to the northern Sinai Peninsula, this will involve actions in the Nile Delta, central Sinai and the Western Desert along the porous border with Libya, strongholds of a persistent Islamic State group insurgency that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police.
“Operation Sinai 2018” is targeting “terrorist and criminal elements and organisations”, el-Rifai said. He did not say how long it would last, but said that it involved land, sea and air forces. The air force had launched attacks against militant hide-outs in north and central Sinai, and the navy had tightened control of the waterways to cut off supply lines, he said.
Security sources said the operation is unprecedented in its scope, coordination and size, and involves thousands of troops.
By mid-afternoon, security officials said they had killed at least 20 militants in the north Sinai town of Bir al-Abed. Militants are also being targeted south and west of the Gaza border town of Rafah, the sources said.
The government announced that the security alert level had been raised to its maximum and said that precautionary measures were being taken throughout the country. Security has been tightened around vital sites, including power plants, water facilities, tourist attractions and houses of worship. The public should expect more checkpoints and traffic searches, the government said, adding that authorities would use traffic and surveillance cameras as a tool in the operation.
Hospitals in north Sinai and the neighbouring provinces had earlier been put on high alert in anticipation of casualties from the operation. The ministry of health requested that hospitals in the port city of Ismailia take emergency measures including doubling the number of doctors on shift and making sure that extra medication and blood bags are on hand.
Local petrol stations and shops have been ordered to close.
The unrest in the region started after the fall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but militants stepped up their targeting of security personnel after the army ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. They have also been responsible for several church bombings and attacks against Christians throughout Egypt, including in Cairo.
Jihadists have also attacked tourists. In 2015 Islamist militants planted a bomb on a Russian plane carrying tourists, killing all 224 people on board.
The military has carried out numerous operations in Sinai since the unrest broke out and says it has killed hundreds of jihadists over the years. The government also cleared a buffer zone along the border with Gaza to curb the flow of militants and weapons through tunnels under the border. Despite that, the insurgency continues with strength.
After scores of gunmen set off explosives and opened fire in a mosque in north Sinai in November and killed 311 people, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave the armed forces a three-month deadline to clear the area of Islamic militants. The attack was the deadliest in Egypt’s modern history and Sisi has increasingly been losing face over his inability to stem the insurgency. He authorised his chief of staff to use “all brute force” to restore stability to the area.
The following month, militants fired a missile at an Apache helicopter at the el-Arish airport in north Sinai that was part of the entourage of the country’s defence and interior ministers. Neither official was in the helicopter at the time, but the missile killed one officer and wounded two others. In response Egypt began clearing a buffer zone around the airport, displacing thousands.
“I follow with pride the heroic actions of my sons in the armed forces and police to clear Egypt’s territory of terrorist elements,” the President posted to his Facebook account on Friday.
Sisi, who was elected in a landslide in 2014 in the wake of Morsi’s overthrow, is running for re-election in March, though any serious opposition has been eliminated. The elections will be held from March 26 to 28. The three-month deadline Sisi gave the military expires at the end of February. The success or failure of the operation is unlikely to have any bearing on the vote’s outcome.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2018-02-09