Egyptian troops storm Islamist stronghold near Cairo

Security forces on Thursday stormed a tourist town near the Great Pyramids that had become an Islamist stronghold — the latest move in a stepped-up campaign by Egypt’s military-backed interim government to suppress armed supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

As they moved into Kerdasa about 6 a.m., backed by armored fighting vehicles and helicopters, the troops and police came under barrages of fire from gunmen on rooftops. Militants took control of the town, which is just outside Cairo, more than a month ago amid a nationwide backlash of violence by Islamists furious about the July 3 military coup that removed Morsi and the ensuing crackdown on his supporters.

A police general fell in the first moments of the battle Thursday. Gen. Nabil Farrag had just given a pep talk to his men on the street, preparing them to roll into the town, when they came under a hail of gunfire, according to an Associated Press video journalist and a photographer working with AP.

Farrag fell with a bullet wound in his right side, despite the body armor he was wearing. He lay in the street for nearly 15 minutes before his men could reach him and take him to a hospital. The Interior Ministry later announced his death.

The assault on Kerdasa underlined an apparently intensified resolve by the government to suppress pro-Morsi strongholds. Soldiers and police stormed the southern town of Dalga this week to break the hold of Islamist militants who took control there after the coup.

Kerdasa, a village in an agricultural area that has swelled into a densely populated town, carries more strategic importance than Dalga. It is a short drive from Cairo’s center and about three miles from the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt’s main tourist attraction. Kerdasa was a popular stop on tourist itineraries because of its clothing and carpet shops.

Morsi supporters drove police out of the town in mid-August, when an Islamist mob attacked the local police station, killed 15 officers and mutilated their bodies, dragging some by cars, scalping at least one and pouring acid on another.

It was part of a wave of retaliatory violence after security forces cracked down on the main pro-Morsi encampments in Cairo with heavy force, killing hundreds.

Authorities named more than 140 people suspected of involvement in the police killings, including several members of Gamaa Islamiya, a hard-line group that waged an armed insurgency in the 1990s. The group later renounced violence and was a strong Morsi ally before and during his year in office.

On Thursday, Gen. Hani Abdel-Latif, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said police plan to besiege the town along with the army, which would then deploy special forces to round up armed men.

“There will be no retreat until it is cleansed of all terrorist and criminal hideouts,” he said in a statement.

A senior police commander at the scene, Gen. Medhat el-
Menshawy, said police arrested 55 suspects in house-to-house raids in Kerdasa. Egypt’s official news agency said those detained included three men suspected of involvement in the killings of the police officers.

— Associated Press

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