CAIRO — Egyptian helicopter gunships and tanks pounded suspected hideouts of Islamic militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, in what officials described as a major new offensive in the insurgent stronghold. Residents who witnessed winding columns of trucks and armored vehicles pour into the area said the operation was one of the largest there in years.
Meanwhile, the country’s prosecutor general filed new charges against deposed President Mohammed Morsi, accusing him of insulting the judiciary — a crime in Egypt punishable by up to six months imprisonment.
A security official said “dozens” of insurgent suspects were killed and wounded in the Sinai offensive, which comes two days after a failed suicide bombing targeting the country’s top policeman in Cairo. Smoke could be seen rising from the towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweyid, and troops set up a cordon to prevent militants from escaping as others combed the area, he said.
The northern Sinai, which adjoins Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, has long been a haven for militants including al-Qaida-inspired groups. Attacks have spiked in the area since Morsi’s July 3 ouster, prompting the latest army offensive.
Egypt’s official news agency MENA reported that a total of six military helicopters were used to strike weapons caches and militants’ vehicles in seven villages, as part of what it described as a “campaign to wipe out terrorist hideouts.”
The army had jammed some communications in the area, and security forces took control of two telephone exchanges in order to disrupt communications between suspected militants, it added.
The security official also said troops had arrested an unidentified number of suspected militants but others managed to escape to mountainous areas in central Sinai.
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.
The government says it is waging a “war on terrorism” against both the Sinai militants and supporters of Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood has organized street demonstrations to protest his overthrow and government assaults on protest encampments.
Egypt remains under emergency law and a nighttime curfew, security measures imposed by the interim government on Aug. 14.