EL-ARISH, Egypt — Egyptian troops and security forces on Friday detained nine Islamic militants in northern Sinai believed to be behind a surprise attack last weekend that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, a security official said.
It was the first reported arrest in connection with the attack, which took place last Sunday and which sparked a major Egyptian military operation in the Sinai Peninsula aimed at stamping out Islamic militant groups that have become bolder and grown in numbers since the ouster last year of Hosni Mubarak.
So far the effectiveness of the 4-day-old operation is not clear. Despite the influx of troops, militants have continued low-level attacks on Egyptian troops and security forces. One famous checkpoint on the road linking the Rafah border town with the city of el-Arish comes under attack almost daily. Officials say that militants open fire at night, engage in brief firefights then flee.
The country's longtime Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and recently-elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi broke their dawn-to-dusk fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in a symbolic gesture with soldiers in northern Sinai on Friday.
The local Bedouin population is largely resentful of the central government over years of discrimination, marginalization and heavy-handed security sweeps under Mubarak, who ruled for nearly 30 years. Some have nonetheless helped the military, though many are fearful of risking their lives if they help security forces and provide tips on the militants – many of whom are Bedouins – after one tribal leader was shot dead two months ago for cooperating with the police.
Speaking to residents in Sinai, Morsi vowed that the Bedouin, who have long been neglected and eyed with suspicion by the government, would be given full rights.
"The sons of Sinai are a legitimate part of society," he said to a round of applause. "The people of Sinai are coordinating with the military and police to secure Sinai."
In Friday's early morning raid, troops stormed a house in the Bedouin desert town of Sheikh Zuweyid, close to the Rafah crossing with the Gaza Strip, catching the nine suspects while they were asleep. Among them was Selmi Zeyoud, who the official described as a "dangerous element" and a brother to a slain jihadist. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The official said the nine were suspected of involvement in last Sunday's assault, in which gunmen stormed an army checkpoint by the border between Gaza and Israel, killing the 16 soldiers as they broke their daily fast for the holy month of Ramadan with a sunset meal. The attackers then commandeered an armored vehicle, which they later used to storm across the border into Israel where they were hit by an Israeli airstrike that killed at least six militants.
Large swaths of northern Sinai have plunged into lawlessness following Mubarak's ouster, and weapons smuggled from Libya have found their way into militants' hands. The weapons and the security vacuum fueled the rise of al-Qaida-inspired militant groups which have staged several low-level cross-border attacks on Israel.
Security officials put the number of militants in northern Sinai at around 1,500 but some Bedouin tribal leaders say the figure is in the thousands.
The military has sent tanks and troops to the peninsula to combat the groups. However, witnesses say the offensive has been limited to a few raids on houses of suspected militants. The Al-Ahram newspaper and other state-run papers reported Friday that 60 "terrorists" have been killed in airstrikes. However, medical officials say no bodies have reached el-Arish's only hospital.
Officials said earlier that along with the offensive, Egypt is going after an elaborate network of underground tunnels used to smuggle weapons, militants and goods between Sinai and Gaza, the Palestinian enclave under a longtime Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Al-Ahram reported that 150 tunnels have been destroyed. Residents in the area said the tunnels targeted were not the most active ones.
The surprise weekend attack on soldiers has rattled the Egyptian government, the military council and the country's president, who fired the chief of intelligence and the governor of northern Sinai in an apparent attempt to defuse public discontent.