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Egypt says fighting in central Sinai leaves 10 soldiers dead

By BRIAN ROHAN
March 23, 2017 07:28 AM

CAIRO (AP) — Islamic extremists killed 10 Egyptian soldiers in fighting in a central part of the restive Sinai Peninsula during an army raid on a militant hideout early Thursday, the military said, a toll that underscored its continuing challenges to rein in insurgents in the area.

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Army spokesman Tamer el-Rifai said troops killed 15 extremists and took seven prisoners in the raid, but that three officers and seven enlisted men were killed by roadside bombs while in pursuit of the militants.

Egypt has been battling an insurgency in northern Sinai for years, mainly by militants from an Islamic State affiliate. The army has been increasingly saying it is taking the fight deeper into the peninsula's sparsely populated desert and mountainous areas, such as Jebel Halal and near the town of Hassana, targeting insurgent weapons depots and strongholds.

Troops destroyed a large amount of explosives in the raid and seized other weapons, ammunition and equipment, including roadside bombs, computers, solar panels, documents and mobile phones, al-Rifai said.

Both the army and IS regularly claim killing opponents, but journalists are banned from the area and the assertions are often impossible to verify.

Alongside the statement, el-Rifai also posted photos of dead bodies lying in the desert — alleged extremists in Afghan-style long tunics and baggy pants popular with jihadi fighters across the world. Weapons and equipment were also shown, as well as seven blindfolded men kneeling under guard by soldiers.

Earlier this month, the Sinai-based IS branch claimed responsibility for the killing of Col. Yasser Mohammed el-Hadidi, a senior officer in the flashpoint northern peninsula town of el-Arish, with a roadside bomb, and two other officers the following day.

The group has also been behind a string of deadly slayings of Egyptian Christians in northern Sinai, which began in December and which has prompted much of the region's Christian Coptic minority to start leaving the area.

The fighting remains hundreds of kilometers (miles) away from the Red Sea holiday destinations in southern Sinai, but more news of militarized violence likely worsens the state of Egypt's flagging tourism industry, now a shadow of its peak before the country's 2011 popular uprising.

Worries over airport security and some flight bans by European countries remain present, after a bomb brought down a Russian airliner full of tourists in October 2015, killing all 224 people onboard.

News of Thursday's violence broke shortly before President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a general-turned-politician, praised Egypt's long-running fight against militants. In televised comments, the Egyptian leader said the country's security forces were flying the "banner of humanity, mercy, construction and development."

"We are the true protectors of righteousness and we sincerely condemn all cowardly terrorist acts anywhere in the world," he said during an emotional celebration honoring martyrs from the armed forces.

El-Sissi fought back tears as he listened to the testimonies of the widow and a mother of army officers who fell in Sinai.

Also Thursday, el-Sissi ordered the doubling of the budget of the military association that looks after the families of soldiers who fell in battle as well as for physical therapy for disabled troops. He also suggested that members of the armed forces have a "symbolic" part of their salaries deducted as a donation to the association in solidarity with the wounded.

___

Associated Press writer Hamza Hendawi in Cairo contributed to this report.

Credits

By BRIAN ROHAN

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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