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 suspected Islamic extremists, a military official said.
A day earlier, an al-Qaida inspired militant group based in the area allegedly claimed responsibility for last week's failed assassination attempt on Egypt's interior minister, describing the Cairo attack as a "suicide" car bomb.
If true, the claim attributed to the Ansar Jerusalem group that appeared on militant websites would mark the first time Sinai militants took their fight into 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 Sinai 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.
In the statement posted late Sunday, Ansar Jerusalem claimed it carried out the attack on Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim's convoy 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, 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.
In Sinai, communications were jammed and internet was 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 20 dead and 20 captured suspected militants so far in the operation, he added, a number have fled to coastal villages or tried to enter Gaza through underground tunnels.