Egypt Initiating Major Campaign Against Sinai Islamists

CAIRO (Reuters) -
An armored Israeli military vehicle drives along Israel’s border with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. (Reuters/Amir Cohen/File)

Egypt on Friday launched a major security operation involving the army and police against “terrorist and criminal elements and organisations” across the country, the army spokesman said.

The army spokesman said the operation covers areas in Sinai, the Delta and the Western Desert and it follows a three-month deadline set by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to crush a years-long Islamist insurgency.

“The law enforcement forces began this morning implementing the comprehensive confrontation against the terrorist and criminal elements and organisations in northern and central Sinai,” an army spokesman said in a statement.

The army spokesman said the operation will involve operational and training maneuvers to tighten state control on the country’s crossing points with neighboring countries, and urged full cooperation with the law enforcement forces involved in the operation.

A state of emergency was declared a in northern Sinai, a report in Arab media said Friday. According to the report, hospitals in the area were instructed to prepare for the possibility of receiving large numbers of injured, and dozens of ambulances have been sent from Egypt into Sinai.

Many beds have been cleared in local hospitals, and leave for security personnel serving in the area has been canceled. Doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals are also being asked to work over the weekend. Witnesses said that the Ahmad Hamadi tunnel, the only traffic route from Egypt to Sinai, has been closed. Roads north of Islamiya, which is in central Sinai, have been closed.

Residents reported hearing extensive air activities above the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, which is close to the area of operations in northern and central Sinai. Witnesses have also reported that large numbers of military vehicles have crossed into Sinai.

Security forces have for years battled an Islamic State insurgency in North Sinai that has killed hundreds of soldiers and police. The terrorists have expanded their targets to include civilians over the last year or so.

Egypt earlier this week rejected a report in The New York Times that Israel has been staging attacks in Sinai on behalf of Cairo against Islamist groups. According to the report, the attacks were approved by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the report was confirmed by several senior security officials in the U.S. and Britain. The Egyptians have kept the matter quiet in order not to raise the ire of extremists in the country, and the Israeli military censor has kept the attacks out of the news in Israel altogether.

Egyptian Army spokesperson Col. Ta’amar Afrahi told a Cairo newspaper that Egypt alone was responsible for the security of Sinai, and was fighting terrorism there without the help of any other country. “We are the only ones fighting terror, and we have had great success,” he was quoted as saying. Afrahi said that he had contacted other Egyptian media outlets and asked them not to “spread unreliable stories” that have not been verified by the military.