by maggie michael and ashraf sweilam associated press
Egyptian helicopter gunships and tanks pounded suspected hideouts and weapon caches of Islamic militants, killing nine people Saturday in the northern Sinai Peninsula in what locals say is the largest operation in the lawless region for years.
Officials say that the military is hunting hundreds of militants believed to be responsible for a series of attacks in the region they overran after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The militants, the officials say, belong to a number of well-known al-Qaida-inspired groups that seek the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in northern Sinai, a region bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Attacks in the region have increased following the July 3 military coup that toppled President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, prompting the military offensive.
Early Saturday, resident say they saw winding columns of trucks and armored vehicles pour into the area. Some said they hadn't seen soldiers on foot in their villages in decades. Communications were jammed for hours, as authorities seized control of two telephone exchanges.
Military helicopters hovered overhead in a dozen villages concentrated near two border towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweyid, security officials said. Airstrikes targeted shacks believed to be gathering points of militants, they said. Soldiers later stormed homes searching for suspected fighters.
"Successive strikes are aimed at causing paralysis of the militant groups and cutting communications between each other," a security official said. "The offensive is carried out within a timeframe where there will be periods of calm for intelligence before resuming once again."
"We aim for cleansing the whole region of militants and prevent them from coming back," he added.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to publicly brief journalists.
In a statement, Army spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said nine suspected militants were killed on Saturday and nine others detained.
Earlier, another official said "dozens" were wounded in the Sinai offensive. Conflicting casualty figures come from militants taking away the corpses of their comrades and treating their wounded, a security official said. Smoke could be seen rising from villages and troops set up a cordon to prevent militants from escaping as others combed the area, he said.
Troops arrested a number of suspected militants but others managed to escape to mountainous areas in central Sinai, an official said.
In the past, militants used a vast network of underground tunnels linking Egypt with Gaza as a way to escape security crackdowns. However, over the past two months, the military has destroyed more than 80 percent of them, stemming the flow of weapons, militants and goods into Gaza, a territory under an Israeli-imposed blockade.
Sheik Hassan Khalaf, a tribal leader from al-Joura, one of the targeted villages in the area, said the assault was "by far the largest operation we have seen and the one we have been waiting for." As he spoke, the sound of helicopter rotors could be heard.
"Starting today, you will not hear of attacks on army or police checkpoints as before. They either have to flee or get arrested," Khalaf said.
Another tribal leader in the area offered a different account of the operations. He called the raids "arbitrary," citing one incident where army troops attacked the house of a pro-government tribal sheik in the village of al-Dhahir. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.
A leader of an ultraconservative Salafi group in el-Arish, Hamdeen Abu-Faisal, accused the government of spreading "false and fabricated reports" about targets and causalities in order to rally support from the population.
"There are many question marks over the government-led operations in Sinai," he said. "There is violence and counter violence. But targeting the innocent, demolishing civilians' houses or destroying mosques serves no purpose."
It remains difficult for journalists to gather information on Sinai operations. Ahmed Abu-Draa, a Sinai-based journalist, has been under arrest since Wednesday and faces a military investigation after questioning military statements about its operations.
The military-backed government says it is waging a "war on terrorism" against Sinai militants and those who commit violent acts during protests over Morsi's ouster. Suspected Morsi supporters have attacked police stations, government buildings and churches.
In one of the most dramatic attacks amid the unrest, Egypt's Interior Minister survived a suicide car bomb explosion Thursday in an eastern Cairo neighborhood. Authorities said one person was killed and 22 wounded, while the minister escaped unharmed.
On Saturday, three mortar rounds were found tied to railway tracks linking the Suez Canal cities of Suez and Ismailiya, a security official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
On Friday, Egypt's state news agency MENA reported that two explosive devices were defused next to a Giza mosque.
In Cairo, the prosecutor general announced new charges against Morsi, saying the deposed leader had insulted the judiciary in one of his last speeches by accusing 22 judges of forging election results in 2005, according to MENA. The prosecutor ordered Morsi be held in four-day detention pending further investigation.
The agency said Morsi refused to answer questions in relation to the charges. Morsi has been held in an undisclosed location since the military overthrew him in a July 3 coup after millions took to the streets demanding his resignation.
The ousted Islamist faces a long list of accusations, including conspiring with foreign groups to orchestrate a prison break during the 2011 uprising and inciting violence and the killing of protesters in a second case. He was referred to trial but no date has been set.
At least 2,000 of Morsi's fellow Muslim Brotherhood members have also been arrested, most on allegations of inciting violence. On Saturday, a Cairo court opened the trial of a leading group member, Mohammed el-Beltagy, Salafi preacher Safwat Hegazy and two others — all charged with kidnapping and torturing a police officer. Security concerns caused the court to postpone proceedings until Oct. 5.
Meanwhile, hundreds of activists staged a protest in front of the general prosecutor's office in downtown Cairo and in front of the Press Syndicate to call for the release of the detained journalist Abu Daraa and labor lawyer Haitham Mohammadain, who was detained Thursday. Mohammadain was released later Saturday.
Egypt's military-backed interim government is pushing a fast-track timetable for a return to democratic rule by amending the now-suspended constitution and holding presidential and parliamentary elections early next year.
Sweilam reported from el-Arish, Egypt.