CAIRO – Smoke billowed in the sky as Egyptian helicopter gunships rocketed suspected Islamic militant hideouts in the lawless northern Sinai Peninsula for a second day on Sunday, killing 11 suspected fighters as part of the largest military offensive in the region in years, military officials said.
They say the assault aims to drive out al-Qaida-inspired groups from several villages of the restive border region, where militants have established strongholds and stockpiled an unprecedented amount of weapons.
Also Sunday, a militant group in northern Sinai allegedly claimed responsibility for a failed assassination attempt on the country’s interior minister last week. In a statement attributed to Ansar Jerusalem posted on militant websites, the Islamic extremist group claimed it was behind the attack on Mohammed Ibrahim. The statement said military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led a coup against former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, is another target.
A military official said 11 militants and one soldier were killed in the fighting on Sunday. He said 10 militants had been arrested. A day earlier two soldiers and nine militants were killed in the offensive.
Gen. Osama Askar of the 3rd Army told reporters troops had seized at least 10 shoulder-fired Sam-7 anti-aircraft missiles a day earlier. They were found in a mosque and in homes of suspected militants in the town of Sheikh Zuweyid, near the border with the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Western officials say thousands of shoulder-launched missiles went missing from Libyan arsenals since that country’s 2011 civil war. Egyptian authorities say Libyan missiles have been smuggled into the Sinai, and some of those have gone on to Gaza.
Armed Forces spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said helicopters had provided air cover for what was “the biggest security operation” in the northern Sinai in years.
A second military official said the military found heavy weapons, explosive belts for suicide bombers, mortars, RPGs, anti-aircraft missiles and maps with positions of the military in the region.