Egypt has begun a massive security operation involving land, sea and air forces in areas including the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, the epicentre of an Islamic insurgency spearheaded by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.
The operation, announced in a televised statement by army spokesman Colonel Tamer el-Rifaai, began early on Friday and covers central Sinai and areas in Egypt’s Nile Delta and Western Desert.
He said the operation was targeting “terrorist and criminal elements and organisations”, but gave no indication how long the operation would last.
Footage posted on YouTube by the Egyptian Ministry of Defence said it would be a military operation of unprecedented size to “crush terrorism”.
The video highlighted the Egyptian military’s top-of-the-line weaponry, including French Rafale fighters, US F-16 fighter-bombers, US Apache attack helicopters, a modern EADS transport aircraft, the Casa C-295, and US twin-rotored Chinook helicopters.
Additionally, what appear to be dozens of US-made Abrams main battle tanks and the US-made M109 self-propelled howitzer are shown lined up in columns.
In a subsequent statement, Colonel el-Rifaai said the Air Force carried out air strikes on militant hideouts in north and central Sinai.
He added that naval forces were deployed to cut off their supply lines and that security has been boosted around the country’s border crossings, shipping routes and vital facilities.
Security officials said the forces killed at least 20 militants in the north Sinai town of Bir al-Abd.
They added that militants are also being targeted south and west of the town of Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief the media.
The operation began amid local media reports of heightened alert levels in north Sinai hospitals and in other neighbouring provinces in anticipation of casualties.
Local gas stations and shops were also ordered shut.
State of emergency
The military campaign comes ahead of the presidential election in March, in which President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is running for a second four-year term with no serious contenders.
Mr al-Sisi was elected in 2014 in a landslide with promises of restoring security.
Egypt has for years been struggling to contain an Islamic insurgency in the turbulent Sinai region.
It has carried out military operations there that, it says, have killed hundreds of militants and soldiers over the years.
Egypt also built a buffer zone along the border with Gaza to curb the flow of militants and weapons through a vast tunnel network under the border.
The insurgency, nevertheless, shows no signs of abating.