Egypt: No halt to Sinai drive against militants

Aug 29, 2012, 11:23 AM EDT
In this Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 file photo, Egyptian border guards patrol near the border with Israel in Rafah, Egypt. President Mohammed Morsi is using former jhadists to mediate with radical Islamists in Sinai, trying to ensure a halt in militant attacks in return for a stop in a military offensive in the lawless peninsula, participants in the talks say.
(AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa, File)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's military on Wednesday insisted it is pursuing its offensive against Islamic militants in the volatile Sinai Peninsula, denying a claim that the government agreed to halt the operation that followed a bloody border attack.

The statement countered a declaration by ultraconservative Salafi Muslims and other radical groups that the offensive was called off in order to avoid an escalation of violence by the militants, who are thought to be extremist jihadis, some inspired by al-Qaida.

The offensive was triggered by a brazen attack on Aug. 5 near Egypt's border with Gaza and Israel, when masked militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers before crossing into Israel, where they were shot dead.

The official Egyptian Middle East News Agency quoted an unidentified military official as saying that the offensive is still in progress, noting the total number of militants killed since the beginning of the operation has reached 11.

"We will continue to chase the terrorists," the official said, according to the MENA report.

The deployment of tanks and thousands of troops marked a precedent since enactment of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace accord, which imposed strict limits on Egyptian forces in Sinai, especially in the border area. Israel quietly agreed to the posting of several thousand soldiers there even before the Aug. 5 attack, since militant groups also pose a threat to Israel's security.

Salafi leaders said they achieved a truce agreement in a weekend meeting with a delegation of former jihadis dispatched to Sinai by President Mohammed Morsi, who is from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Salafis said that along with an end to the military campaign, the agreement included opening the Rafah passenger terminal between Egypt and Gaza and destruction of some of the hundreds of tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border used to smuggle weapons and goods into Gaza. Also, the Sinai militants would hand unlicensed weapons over to the military.