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Egypt fight against IS threatens humanitarian crisis: HRW

© AFP/File | A picture taken in from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing following an explosion close to the border on the Egyptian side of the divided city

BEIRUT (AFP) - 

Egypt's military operations against an affiliate of the Islamic State group in North Sinai is threatening to spark a humanitarian crisis, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.

The offensive launched on February 9 has "left up to 420,000 residents in four northeastern cities in urgent need of humanitarian aid", said the New York-based organisation.

The campaign "has included imposing severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods in almost all of" North Sinai, HRW said in a report.

"Residents say they have experienced sharply diminished supplies of available food, medicine, cooking gas, and other essential commercial goods."

The authorities conducting the campaign, dubbed "Sinai 2018", have also banned the sale of gasoline for cars in the area "and cut telecommunication services for several days at a time," the report said.

The Egyptian army denounced the report, saying it was based on "undocumented and unreliable sources".

"We are distributing food rations to people, including in areas where military operations are taking place," army spokesman Tamer al-Rifai told AFP.

HRW also said authorities had "cut water and electricity almost entirely in the most eastern areas of North Sinai, including Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed."

"A counterterrorism operation that imperils the flow of essential goods to hundreds of thousands of civilians is unlawful and unlikely to stem violence," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organisation's Middle East and North Africa director.

"The Egyptian army's actions border on collective punishment," she added.

The army spokesman denied water and electricity had been cut.

Since the launch of the offensive, the military has distributed images of forces providing humanitarian assistance to people living in the area.

According to the military, residents support the campaign and many have come forward with useful information to help the authorities neutralise the jihadists.

Security forces have stepped up efforts to quell attacks by an Egyptian jihadist group that later declared allegiance to IS since Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was deposed in 2013. Morsi was forced out by the military, following mass protests against him.

IS has killed hundreds of soldiers, policemen and civilians, mainly in its North Sinai stronghold but also elsewhere in Egypt.

More than 100 jihadists and at least 30 soldiers have been killed in this year's operation, according to army figures.

© 2018 AFP