Egypt pours military might into North Sinai
(CNN) — Gunmen attacked a police station Thursday in North Sinai, firing several rounds, the latest in a string of violence in the critical area.
Egypt sent a huge convoy of military reinforcements into the region in hopes of bringing security and stability. Heavy equipment including bulldozers and cranes were brought in to help block smuggling tunnels into the Palestinian territory of Gaza.
A police station that was burned down during the uprising in Egypt in January of last year reopened Thursday “to restore law and order back to the highly sensitive area of Sheikh Zuweid, where recent clashes took place between the army and armed militants,” said Gen. Ahmed Bakr, head of North Sinai security.
The developments come days after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded when assailants with semiautomatic weapons and hand grenades stole two armored vehicles from Egyptian forces and tried to enter Israel.
Egyptian soldiers shot dead at checkpoint Clashes could hurt Egypt’s economy
That attack, which took place Sunday near the Rafah border crossing, led Egypt to shut the border indefinitely.
Clashes in the area have intensified since.
Masked gunmen launched six simultaneous attacks in North Sinai early Wednesday, wounding five security officers and a civilian. The targets included five security checkpoints and a military cement factory, Bakr said.
Egyptian forces responded with aerial strikes aimed at militants.
Army Apache helicopters fired rockets Wednesday, and there were numerous casualties, Bakr said. State-run Nile TV reported that aerial strikes killed at least 20 in the port town of El Arish.
Egypt’s military leadership, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, issued a statement Wednesday saying that the operation targeting “armed terrorist elements” in Sinai “has accomplished this task with complete success.”
Two security sources who did not want to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media told CNN that militants are concentrated in Jabal Al Halal in mid-Sinai. They are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft guns and other weapons, including land mines, the sources said.
Security forces had failed in previous attempts to enter what is referred to as Al Halal Mountain, the sources said. But air assaults killed many of the militants, they said.
Still, land mines and the potential for ambushes made it difficult to enter the area using ground vehicles, they said.
Khaled Fouda, the governor of Southern Sinai, declared a state of emergency in all state sectors in the province, including a reduction in the number of tourist buses in order to ensure vehicles servicing tourists will be guarded.
A political shakeup occurred amid the violence. The state-run Middle East News Agency said that the governor of Northern Sinai was sacked and that a new general intelligence agency head was chosen after his predecessor received an “early” retirement.
The violence is a foreign policy test for Egypt’s new government and its president, Mohamed Morsy, a former longtime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant Islamist party.
Islamists and many other Egyptians abhor Israel and its peace treaty with Egypt. Israel, which borders Sinai, raised concerns about terrorism in the region after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.
Morsy’s “response to this crisis will provide the first real evidence of his oft-stated commitment to foreign diplomats that he will respect Egypt’s international agreements, that is, maintain the peace treaty with Israel,” said Robert Satloff and Eric Trager, analysts with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington-based think tank.
Israel blamed militants associated with the group Global Jihad for the Sunday attack. Egyptian military officials called the assailants “enemies” of the nation, while the Muslim Brotherhood said the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was behind the killings.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Israel has handed over the charred remains of six assailants to Egypt, and the remains have been transferred to the Forensic Department in Cairo University for DNA tests in an attempt to identify the perpetrators, according to State TV.