CAIRO — Egyptian helicopter gunships and tanks pounded suspected hideouts of Islamic militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula on Saturday in what officials described as a major new offensive in the insurgent stronghold. Residents who saw winding columns of trucks and armored vehicles pour into the area said the operation was one of the largest there in years.
Nine militants and two soldiers were killed in the raids, security officials said.
Meanwhile, the country’s prosecutor general filed new charges against deposed president Mohamed Morsi, accusing him of insulting the judiciary — a crime in Egypt punishable by up to six months imprisonment.
A security official said “dozens” of insurgent suspects were killed and wounded in the Sinai offensive, which came two days after a failed suicide bombing targeting the country’s top police official in Cairo. Smoke could be seen rising from the towns of Rafah and Sheik Zuweid, and troops set up a cordon to prevent militants from escaping, he said.
The northern Sinai, which adjoins Israel and the Gaza Strip, has long been a haven for militants, including al-Qaeda-inspired groups. Attacks have spiked in the area since Morsi’s July 3 ouster, prompting the latest offensive.
“This is by far the largest operation we have seen and the one we have been waiting for,” said Sheik Hassan Khalaf, a tribal leader from al-Joura, one of 12 targeted villages in the area. “Starting today, you will not hear of attacks on army or police checkpoints as before. They either have to flee or get arrested.”
Egypt’s official news agency MENA reported that six military helicopters were used to strike weapons caches and militants’ vehicles in seven villages, as part of what it described as a “campaign to wipe out terrorist hideouts.”
The security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also said that troops had arrested an unidentified number of suspected militants but that others escaped to mountainous areas in central Sinai.
Militants had been using a vast network of underground tunnels linking Egypt with Gaza as a way to escape security crackdowns. However, over the past two months, the military has destroyed more than 80 percent of them, stemming the flow of weapons, militants and goods into Gaza, a Palestinian territory under an Israeli-imposed blockade.
Another tribal leader in the area offered a different account of the operations, however. He called the raids “arbitrary,” citing one incident in which troops attacked the house of a pro-government tribal sheik in the village of al-Dhahir. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.
A leader of an ultraconservative Salafist group in el-Arish, Hamdeen Abu Faisal, accused the government of spreading “false and fabricated reports” about targets and casualties to rally support from the population and said that rising injustice, heavy-handed security policies and arbitrary arrests were the root causes of instability in the area.
“There are many question marks over the government-led operations in Sinai,” he said. “There is violence and counterviolence. But targeting the innocent, demolishing civilians’ houses or destroying mosques serves no purpose.”
In Cairo, the prosecutor general said Morsi had assaulted the judiciary by accusing 22 judges of forging election results in 2005, according to MENA.
The agency said Morsi refused to answer questions in relation to the charges. The former president has been held incommunicado since his overthrow by the military.
Morsi faces a long list of accusations, including conspiring with foreign groups to orchestrate a prison break during the 2011 uprising that forced longtime autocratic president Hosni Mubarak from power. He has also been charged with inciting violence and the killing of protesters opposed to his rule during clashes in December. He was referred to trial, but no date has been set.
At least 2,000 of Morsi’s allies in the Muslim Brotherhood have also been arrested, most on allegations of inciting violence.
In addition, the detention of Egyptian labor lawyer Haitham Mohammadain and journalist Ahmed Abu Draa have raised concerns among rights activists that the military-backed government’s crackdown on Islamists is expanding to silence other critics of its policies.
On Saturday, hundreds staged a protest in front of the general prosecutor’s office in downtown Cairo and in front of the Press Syndicate to call for the release of the two men.