Cairo – Egyptian soldiers who were sent to crack down on lawlessness in the North Sinai Desert killed a man in a gunfight on Monday and captured a dozen others in a series of early morning raids, security officials said.
The military council that has governed Egypt since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak said over the weekend that it was deploying about 1,000 soldiers to the region, apparently in response to an attack on a police station two weeks ago. In that attack, in the provincial capital of El Arish, gunmen launched rocket-propelled grenades and fought a nine-hour firefight with the police before escaping unharmed.
The North Sinai region is dominated by Bedouin tribes and is a perennial hotbed of illegal weapons sales, smuggling and other activities. The Egyptian police have never been very welcome there, and in the six months since the Egyptian revolution they have all but vanished, leaving local Bedouin tribes to provide the only law and order.
The area is near the border with Israel and with Gaza, and the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt imposes limits on the Egyptian military presence there. But Egyptian and Israeli news reports said the Egyptian government had obtained Israel’s agreement for a temporary increase in troop strength there to address security problems. Both countries have an interest in restoring order because of a pipeline through the area that carries natural gas to Israel from Egypt; the pipeline has been disrupted by five bombings in recent months that remain unsolved.
The retreat of the police from North Sinai has also helped open the way for a boom in smuggling, in defiance of Israel’s blockade of Gaza since the militant Palestinian group Hamas took control there.
Egyptian security officials said the raids on Monday were concentrated in the area called South of Arish, which has been a favored hideout for criminals. The troops arrived with a list of people they sought, including suspects in the recent attack on the police station.
The officials said that in one raid on a location where some of the suspects were believed to be hiding, an unidentified man opened fire and was killed. The officials said that three automatic weapons and four grenades were found in the residence, but that no identification was found with the man’s body.
Some of those arrested in the raids were prison inmates who escaped during the tumult of the revolution, the officials said. Many other escaped inmates are believed to remain at large around the country.
Some of the suspects sought by the troops were thought to have slipped away into Gaza through smugglers’ tunnels under the border.