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Egyptian Militants Outwit Army in Sinai Battlefield

Soldiers in military vehicles proceed towards al-Jura district in El-Arish city from Sheikh Zuwaid

Cairo – Egypt’s army says it is crushing Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the region’s villages and towns a victory for the state feels a long way off. In a rare visit to eight villages in Northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations, but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world’s biggest army and are nowhere near defeat. It is increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to openly enter conflict zones in the Sinai.

Residents say the militants – a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth – have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo. “The army is in control of the main roads but is unable to enter many villages. It can only attack them by helicopter,” said Mustafa Abu Salman, who lives near al-Bars village.

“Even when the army’s armored personnel vehicles enter villages they fail to arrest militants who have better knowledge of the place, which the military completely lacks.” Many residents say that the authorities’ military operations are actually creating new enemies for the state.

The fight against militant Islam is a key test for the interim government in Cairo. Sinai-based militants stepped up attacks on police and soldiers last year, soon after Egypt’s army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi and tried him on a wide range of charges. The violence has left 300 people dead and hammered Egypt’s economy, which has not recovered from the political turmoil that began in early 2011 when a popular uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak.

The army and the government say they are beating the militants. In an attempt to stop the illegal flow of arms, Egyptian authorities have destroyed thousands of tunnels that ran under the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, which borders North Sinai. Almost every night, Apache helicopters fire rockets at suspected Islamist militant hideouts in the houses and farms of the largely lawless peninsula, a 61,000 sq km (24,000 sq mile) area wedged between the Suez Canal to the west and Israel and Gaza to the east. (Reuters)

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