Egypt began a major assault on Friday against Islamist militants in the Arab world’s most populous country, aiming to crush their insurgency ahead of a three-month deadline set by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is seeking re-election. Residents reported seeing and hearing warplanes above the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, which is close to the area of operations in northern and central Sinai. Security forces have for years battled an Islamic State insurgency in North Sinai that has killed hundreds of soldiers and police. The militants have expanded their targets to include civilians over the last year or so.
The military operation is intended to cover large parts of the Sinai peninsula, as well as parts of the Delta and the Western Desert, the military spokesman said. The campaign involves the air force, navy and army as well as police, he said. “The armed forces calls upon the Egyptian people in all parts of the country to closely cooperate with law enforcement forces to confront terrorism, uproot it and immediately report any elements threatening the security and stability of the country,” the spokesman, Colonel Tamer al-Rifai, said in a televised address. Security sources said on Thursday the operation, which had been in planning for some time, was unprecedented in its scope, coordination and size, involving thousands of troops, but did not provide further details.
Egypt regularly targets militants with air strikes and arrest raids in Sinai. The offensive takes place less than three months after gunmen killed more than 300 worshippers at a mosque in North Sinai. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but officials said they had brandished an Islamic State flag.
The operation comes weeks ahead of a March 26-28 presidential election in which Sisi is seeking a second term. Sisi in November ordered the armed forces to clear North Sinai of Islamist militants within three months after an attack on a mosque that killed 300 people. Separate security sources said security forces had increased their presence in North Sinai in recent days, increasing patrols and were carrying out checks of residents, without elaborating.
The airforce targeted militant hide-outs in North and Central Sinai, while the navy tightened its maritime control to cut off supply lines, al-Rifai said in a second statement. “The intention is to declare North Sinai a province free of terrorism by the end of February,” one security source told Reuters.