EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian troops and tanks backed by helicopter gunships swept through villages in the northern Sinai Peninsula near the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip on Monday, the third day of a major offensive against Islamic extremists, a military official said. So far, some 20 suspected militants have been killed and 20 captured in the operation, he added.
Explosions rocked el-Mahdiya and Naga Shabana, two of several villages south of the town of Rafah, the official said, where the military hit targets and shelters used by militants wanted for the killing and abduction of Egyptian soldiers over the past year.
A day earlier, an al-Qaida-inspired militant group based in the area claimed responsibility for last week's failed assassination attempt on Egypt's interior minister, describing the Cairo attack as a "suicide" car bomb.
The claim could not be independently verified but it appeared on militant websites that regularly distribute statements from al-Qaida-linked groups. If true, it would mark the first time Sinai militants took their fight to the heart of the Egyptian capital with a suicide attack.
Tourist resorts along the southern coast of the rocky, desert region saw a string of suicide bombings in the mid-2000s that left at least 125 people dead and triggered mass arrests and detentions of thousands of Bedouin tribesman. The crackdown soured relations between locals and the central government, intensifying the Bedouins' feelings of mistreatment and turning the northern end of the peninsula into an incubator for Islamic extremism.
Like Ansar Jerusalem, other Sinai-based al-Qaida inspired groups have been blamed for a spike of attacks against military and police in northern Sinai since the military ousted former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.
The increase in violence has raised suspicions of links between Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic militant groups. Military officials have accused Morsi of handling the groups too leniently and striking a truce with them to halt their attacks in return for suspending military operations against them during his year in office. This truce, they say, gave militants free reign to stockpile weapons, evidenced by the large caches of anti-aircraft missiles, mortars, and RPGs and other weapons seized by the army since Saturday.
Mustafa Hegazy, the interim president's political adviser, told Egyptian TV station Al-Hayat that under Morsi's rule, the number of militants in Sinai jumped to 7,000 or more from 1,000.
"It is graver than what we thought," he said in a late Sunday interview. He said the attempt on the interior minister did not signal a broader deterioration of Egypt's security, which was being "restored" across the country.
In the Ansar Jerusalem statement posted late Sunday, the group said it carried out the attack on Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim's motorcade to avenge Muslims killed by security forces during their violent Aug. 14 dismantlement of two sprawling encampments set up in Cairo by pro-Morsi supporters demanding his reinstatement. The day left hundreds dead in what was an unprecedented bloodbath. It also sparked a wave of unrest across the country where pro-Morsi supporters attacked churches and police stations.
"The Interior Ministry, the slaughterer, has seen death with its own eyes from a martyrdom operation carried out by a lion of Egypt's lions," the statement said. "What is coming will be worse," it added.
"We pledge to God the Almighty to seek revenge for Muslims on all those who contributed to their killings and assaulting their honor, above all el-Sissi and Mohammed Ibrahim," it said, also referring to Egypt's Military Chief Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi who led the coup against Morsi after millions took to the streets demanding his resignation for abuse of power.
The statement urged Muslims to stay away from the ministries of interior and defense, indicating that these two institutions will be targeted.
It also showed an ideological proximity to al-Qaida, citing an Aug. 3 statement by the group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, that mocked the democratic process and called upon "soldiers of the Quran to wage the war for the Quran," the Muslim holy book.
An Egyptian security official said authorities are still studying the statement, but confirmed that human remains suspected to belong to the suicide bomber were found inside the car used in the bombing. The Health Ministry said that one person died a day later of wounds sustained during the attack, and more than 20 were injured.
Ansar Jerusalem does not have a proven record of carrying out attacks outside of Sinai. It has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on gas pipelines to Israel, rockets targeting Israel and a 2012 shootout along the Israeli-Egyptian border in which three militants and an Israeli soldier were killed.
The army however has targeted it along with several other Islamic militant groups in its current operation.
In northern Sinai, mobile phone networks, landlines and the Internet were down early Monday as the military resumed its strikes on alleged militant hideouts in the southern town of Rafah, according to the military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Besides those killed and captured in the operation, a number of suspects have fled to coastal villages or tried to enter Gaza through underground tunnels.
Witnesses said that they saw soldiers leaving troop carriers and firing in the air in celebration at sunset as they returned from the town of Rafah to their base in the city of el-Arish. Behind them, columns of smoke rose in the sky from where strikes were concentrated just south of Rafah, they added.
In the area lies the village of el-Mahdiya, believed to be the home of militant leader Shadi el-Manaei, a suspected mastermind of the abduction of seven Egyptian soldiers in May.
An official said the military seized weapons and ammunition there. There was no report on causalities or arrests.
In what appeared to be retaliatory attacks, suspected Islamic militants fired an RPG at a checkpoint in el-Arish, killing one soldier and injuring two others, the military official said. He added that in two other separate incidents, one army officer was shot in the head and two soldiers injured in attacks on check points in central Sinai.
On Monday, fear of new attacks in Cairo prompted authorities to beef up security, especially in stations and trains of the subway network, where men guards patrolled with sniffer dogs and searched passengers. Millions of commuters use the subway daily.
On Saturday, three mortar rounds were removed from railway tracks in the eastern city of Suez. Passenger trains in Egypt have been stopped since Aug. 14.
On Sunday, Ibrahim, the interior minister, ordered a tightening of security at the main bridges and highway crossings from Sinai to the mainland, the official news agency reported. He said the move was to prevent the "infiltration of terrorist elements escaping the security crackdown in Sinai into the provinces."
Michael reported from Cairo