Egypt Launches Air Strikes Against Militants In Sinai

The Egyptian army has gone on the offensive in the Sinai Peninsula, with air, missile and ground attacks against Islamist militants near the Israeli border.

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Today in the Sinai Desert, Egypt's military launched air strikes and ground attacks on Islamist militants. It was the most intense security operation in the Sinai for decades. The strikes came in response to the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers this weekend when militants attacked their camp.

Unrest in Sinai is nothing new. And as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, the security vacuum there may be due to the failure of Egypt's military to act.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In a broadcast statement to the nation, Egypt's military council called its overnight operation in northern Sinai a complete success, and the generals vowed that with the help of local tribes stability will be fully restored.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Prime Minister Hesham Kandil also assured Egyptians that the government will secure Sinai.

PRIME MINISTER HESHAM KANDIL: (Through Translator) There are armed groups that we must work against. We must know who are behind them to hold them responsible, and we should control the borders. This is indisputable.

FADEL: President Mohammed Morsi sacked the governor of North Sinai, replaced the head of military police and the head of general intelligence who today said he knew the attack was coming, but it was the president's responsibility to act on that information. In Sinai, tribal leaders say that they too warned Egyptian authorities of the threat and the proliferation of Islamist militants in the desert for months, but the military did nothing. And the result was the death of 16 Egyptian soldiers in a militant ambush on their desert border post last Sunday.

ARASH EL-AKOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Sinai tribal sheikh Arash el-Akour says that the beefed up security presence gives him hope that the state is finally ready to take control, but there are conflicting reports on how effective the air strikes and ground attacks on Tuesday were. Egypt's state news agencies, which act as a mouthpiece for the government, report at least 20 militants are dead. Witnesses in the border towns tell NPR they heard explosions and saw the air strikes, but no one was killed. Tribal sheikh Akour says air strikes and armor are not enough.

EL-AKOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Akour says in coordination with military action, the state needs to provide jobs and services to Bedouins long neglected and in some cases abused by security forces. But the question now: Is the Egyptian military willing or even capable of containing the security situation?

MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: There has always been a problem with militancy in Sinai.

FADEL: Michael Wahid Hanna is an expert on Egypt at The Century Foundation.

HANNA: There is a longstanding and festering problem with respect to how the Bedouin are treated as citizens or not treated as full citizens, and this has provided a useful fodder for increasing militancy among the Bedouin population.

FADEL: He says President Morsi is being unfairly blamed for the situation in Sinai.

HANNA: It's not as if President Morsi has full authority to deal with this issue. This is clearly still the province of the security and intelligence services.

FADEL: But even with more firepower in the Sinai, there are those who wonder if the Egyptian military can confront this internal threat. Egypt's army relies on tanks and heavy weaponry, and the collateral damage of intense bombardments could further alienate the people of North Sinai. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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