EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian helicopter gunships struck suspected hideouts of Islamic militants in the northern Sinai peninsula for a second day on Sunday, part of a major offensive aiming at quelling an insurgency in the lawless region, a military official said.
Meanwhile, top Egyptian military commander Gen. Osama Askar of the 3rd Army told reporters that troops have seized at least 10 shoulder-fired Sam-7 anti-aircraft missiles during the offensive a day earlier. They were found in a mosque and in homes of suspected militants in the southern part of Sheikh Zuweyid town, near the border with the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Western officials have said that thousands of shoulder-launched missiles went missing from Libyan arsenals since the country’s 2011 civil war. Egyptian authorities have said that Libyan missiles have been smuggled into the Sinai, and some of those have gone on through underground tunnels to the Gaza Strip.
Sunday’s strikes targeted the villages of el-Mahdiya and el-Moqataa near the towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweyid. Three U.S.-made Apache helicopters fired rockets, hitting shacks, houses and cars used by militants, the official said.
He added that the airstrikes are to pave the way for a ground offensive, in which troops backed by armored vehicles will search homes of suspected militants. The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to brief the press.
In a new statement Saturday, Armed Forces spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said that helicopters had provided air cover for what was “the biggest security operation” in the northern Sinai in years. He said troops had arrested suspected militants in at least seven villages but did not specify how many were in custody.
Ali’s statement, posted on his official Facebook page, also said that 118 houses had been demolished in the operation by Saturday. Troops have seized three weapons caches containing explosive belts, anti-aircraft missiles, mortar launchers, RPGs and bombs.
Officials say that the military is hunting hundreds of militants believed to be responsible for a series of attacks in a region they overran after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Since the overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, Sinai has witnessed a spike of deadly and near-daily attacks. 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.
On Saturday, residents witnessed columns of trucks and armored vehicles pouring 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. After an assault that lasted more than six-hours, the military said the strikes had killed at least nine suspects.
Over the past weeks, Egypt’s military has bulldozed homes along the Gaza border and caved in tunnels beneath them as a prelude to the possible creation of a buffer zone to reduce weapon smuggling and illegal militant crossings.