CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian warplanes launched new airstrikes and troops went house-to-house Thursday in the troubled Sinai Peninsula, a day after Islamic State-linked militants set off the area’s bloodiest fighting in decades in an unprecedented, coordinated attack.
The combat, described as “war” by the media and officials, heightened tensions across Egypt as it marks Friday’s second anniversary of the military’s overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, a move that fanned an insurgency in north Sinai that has grown stronger.
It also follows the dramatic assassination this week of the country’s chief prosecutor in a car bombing in Cairo, prompting general-turned-politician President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to press for even harsher anti-terrorism laws targeting Islamic militants.
A special forces raid Wednesday on a Cairo apartment killed nine members of Morsi’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which responded by calling for a “rebellion.”
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Air raids at dawn Thursday killed 23 extremists just south of Rafah, a key Sinai border town near the Gaza Strip, Sinai security officials said. They added that the army was searching for militants in the town of Sheikh Zuweid, where a string of army checkpoints were attacked a day earlier.
Soldiers were demining roads in and around the area that had been booby trapped with mines and improvised explosive devices, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The army also raided a house in Rafah, killing six armed IS militants wearing military uniforms, the officials said, adding that it had cleared the area around the Sheikh Zuweid police station of mines and IEDs.
An Associated Press reporter across the border in the Gaza Strip heard explosions and saw smoke rising in the area as airstrikes continued in the afternoon and warplanes roared overhead. Two armored personnel carriers were seen maneuvering in the border area.
Militants in northern Sinai have battled security forces for years, but they stepped up their attacks after Morsi’s ouster on July 3, 2013, which followed mass demonstrations against his rule. El-Sissi led the ouster and was elected president last year.
Authorities and pro-government media have blamed much of the recent violence on the Brotherhood, which has been branded a terrorist group. The Brotherhood denies involvement, although it and other Morsi supporters have faced a sweeping crackdown that has led to thousands of arrests, mass convictions and death sentences. Morsi is among those condemned to die, but he has appealed.
At the funeral for Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on Tuesday, el-Sissi pledged to bring his killers to justice. He signaled an even harsher campaign against the Brotherhood, and toughened anti-terrorism legislation has been submitted for his approval. El-Sissi has not addressed the public since the Sinai battles erupted.
The coordinated assault by scores of extremists that focused on Sheikh Zuweid included suicide bombings and an attack on its main police station, which also was shelled by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades in a firefight with police that lasted most of the day, the officials said.
The army said 17 troops and over 100 militants were killed, although several senior security officials from multiple branches of Egypt’s forces in Sinai had said beforehand that scores more soldiers also died in the fighting.
The main insurgent organization operating in Sinai, which calls itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State group, claimed its fighters struck 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two against checkpoints and one that hit an officers’ club in nearby el-Arish, the area’s largest city. The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified but it was posted on a Facebook page associated with the group.
In the Cairo raid, the Interior Ministry said the nine Brotherhood members who were killed had been plotting attacks on the police, the judiciary and the media.
The Brotherhood called for a “rebellion” and described the killings as “a turning point that will have its own repercussions.”
“It will not be possible to control the anger of the oppressed,” the Brotherhood said in a statement. The move raises the prospect of some Brotherhood supporters who had previously focused on peaceful demonstrations turning to violence.
A newspaper close to the Egyptian government said Thursday the militants behind the Sinai attacks used sophisticated weaponry, including Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles. The el-Watan daily also said they also used mortars, anti-aircraft guns and other guided missiles.
The front pages of Egyptian newspapers focused on the attack. Graphic photographs released by the military showed dead militants wearing desert combat fatigues and ammunition pouches.
Late Wednesday, a resident of Sheikh Zuweid who was in Cairo and had spoken by phone to relatives and friends in the town, said many civilians were trapped by the fighting, with no water or electricity. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said many residents tried to flee to el-Arish.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of the growing threat to the region from Islamic State militants and expressed condolences to Egypt over the deadly IS-linked attacks in Sinai.
“We see in front of our eyes IS acting with extraordinary cruelty both in our northern border and at our southern border,” he said. “Our hearts are with the Egyptian people, we send our condolences to the Egyptian government and the families of those who were killed in battle with the cruel terror.”
Egypt and Israel share a border in the Sinai and have cooperated before on cross-border militant threats.
Associated Press writers Fares Akram in the Gaza Strip, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.