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Egypt, Stunned by Sinai Assault, Vows to Erase ‘Terrorist Dens’

A funeral on Thursday in Ashmoun, in the Nile Delta, for First Lt. Mohamed Ashraf, one of the soldiers killed Wednesday in a militant attack in the Sinai Peninsula.
By KAREEM FAHIM and MERNA THOMAS
July 2, 2015

CAIRO — Egypt’s military killed 23 militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula early Thursday, a senior security official said, as the government sought to reassert control and eradicate what it called the area’s “terrorist dens” after the largest assault there by jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State.

That assault, on Wednesday, stunned officials in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisis’s government with its scale and audacity. Militants belonging to a group calling itself Sinai Province launched coordinated attacks on military checkpoints in the northern Sinai before storming a town and occupying it for hours. The military carried out airstrikes with F-16 warplanes on the town, Sheikh Zuwaid, to force a militant retreat.

A military spokesman said 17 of its soldiers were killed, though other estimates, including by Egyptian news media, put the toll much higher. The attack was a blow to Mr. Sisi, coming just two days after militants assassinated Egypt’s top prosecutor with what the authorities said was a remote-controlled car bomb. Both attacks highlighted the government’s struggles against a broadening insurgency.

As funerals were held across Egypt for the slain soldiers, families in Sheikh Zuwaid looked for a way to leave the town, quiet now but filled with reminders of a terrible fight: a semicollapsed three-story building, scorched vehicles and the bodies of at least 15 militants.

“It was a difficult day, very difficult, for the people,” said Mostafa Singer, a resident who is one of the few journalists reporting regularly from the northern Sinai, where access for the news media is heavily restricted by the military.

At least seven civilians had been killed in the fighting, by shelling, airstrikes or random gunfire, he said. They included Ebtesam Mohammed Sobeih, a 15-year-old girl apparently felled by a military airstrike near her house, he said. Another man was shot dead by militants when he refused to let them take up positions on his roof.

“There could be more,” Mr. Singer said of the dead, saying there were 14 villages around Sheikh Zuwaid that had been largely isolated.

For the residents of the northern Sinai, there are fewer places to seek refuge. The militants have established nominal control at times in some areas, openly setting up checkpoints. And one town, Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip, was effectively demolished by the Egyptian military to create what officials said was a security zone to deter the smuggling of weapons across the border.

Though there was little proof to substantiate government claims that the militants had been routed, Egyptian officials asserted that they had regained dominance in Sinai. At the same time, they sought to control the narrative of the assault on Wednesday, which was an embarrassing setback for their counterinsurgency campaign.

A military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir, told a local television station that “100 percent” of Sinai was under the control of the army. He also warned Egyptian journalists not to trust foreign news media that had published higher death tolls during the attack on Wednesday.

The army said it had killed 100 militants on Wednesday and published photographs of bloodied bodies, including many wearing military fatigues. “We have the will and persistence to stop this black terrorism,” a military statement said. “We will not stop until Sinai is purified from all terrorist dens.”

Gen. Ali al-Azazi, the security director of North Sinai, said the operation on Thursday that killed 23 militants was carried out around 1:30 a.m., and that the military was continuing to pursue jihadists involved in the assault on Sheikh Zuwaid.

But General Samir, the official spokesman who warned journalists about unauthorized information, said in a text message that the reports that the military had killed more militants on Thursday were “not true.” He did not immediately respond to requests to explain the discrepancy.

Merna Thomas contributed reporting.