Egypt Attacks Suspected Militants In Sinai

Egyptian army attack helicopters fired missiles at suspected militants in the Sinai desert Tuesday. The military says at least eight were killed and many more wounded. The army is also moving to seal off the border with the Gaza Strip, and it's destroying smuggling tunnels that have been a major lifeline for Gaza over the past few years.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

The Egyptian military has launched an intensive operation against radical Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula. The move comes, officials say, in response to more than 200 militant attacks on police and security forces just in the past two months. The operation has focused largely on territory in northern Sinai near the Gaza Strip. So far, the Egyptian military reports at least two dozen militants have been killed or wounded in the attacks, which were mainly carried out with Apache helicopters.

I'm joined now by NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's in Cairo. And, Soraya, what more details can you give us about these military strikes against the Islamists?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The attack began around dawn and was carried out mainly by two Apache helicopters, which attacked four houses, as well as a mosque in which militants were said to be meeting, at least according to the military. And in addition to these locations - and this was all in various towns in northern Sinai - the military attacked several weapons depots that were said to be created by the militants there and also attacked two SUVs in which militants were escaping.

BLOCK: And what more can you tell us about the militants themselves, who are now being targeted by the Egyptian military?

NELSON: Well, these are people who either lived in Sinai or moved there. And it's a place that's become incredibly radicalized, especially in the last two months, after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power. These are Islamists who feel that democracy has not worked for them, and they've become incredibly moved towards violence.

They say they will restore their rights in any way possible. They've been particularly angry with police and the military, who they feel have not defended them. And this is something that has gone on even before, when Hosni Mubarak was president.

BLOCK: Now, in fact, the Egyptian military blamed the ousted President Mohamed Morsi for allowing the northern part of Sinai to become a haven for radical militants, whom they are now targeting. Is that true?

NELSON: There's no doubt that during his tenure as president that he did not do much about what was happening in Sinai. But this sort of radicalization and, even more so, the armament that has moved into there, that was going on long before that. A lot of the arms were coming from Libya after the revolution that happened there and the strife, and so a lot of things - a lot of weapons were moving into Sinai.

And this is a very lawless area. It's a place where Americans have been kidnapped, tourists have been kidnapped. And so, it's been very lawless even before Morsi took power.

BLOCK: Has the Egyptian military signaled how long these military strikes might continue?

NELSON: They say it's open ended in the sense that they want to make sure that they take care of this threat. But it's unclear exactly when it will end.

BLOCK: And we mentioned that these strikes are coming in the northern part of Sinai right by the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas. Is the operation having a spillover effect in Gaza itself?

NELSON: Yes, because the military has been targeting - they do this periodically but they certainly, during this operation, have been targeting the area that is sort of along that border. And so, they've been evicting people from their homes there. They've been bulldozing the tunnels. There are hundreds of tunnels there that are used to carry goods and, you know, arguably weapons back and forth. And so, that has been sealed off.

But the feeling among the Bedouin there is that they will move back in at some stage. It's not something that is a permanent solution - at least when you talk to locals, that's what they say.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo, Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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