EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian helicopter gunships fired rockets early Tuesday at militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula, causing "dozens" of casualties in an ongoing effort by authorities to assert control over the largely lawless region, security officials said.
Egyptian government troops have stepped up their crackdown on militants in the peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel, arresting suspects and destroying tunnels along the Gaza border used for smuggling weapons and people. Attacks by Islamic militants surged in the lawless Sinai after the toppling of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi in a July 3 coup.
Security officials said military helicopters targeted multiple locations along the borders with Gaza and in northern Sinai, apparently going after hideouts of suspected militants and weapons caches.
One official said the helicopter attacks surprised militant gatherings in three houses in al-Muqataa and Touma near the border with the Gaza Strip.
Dozens of militants were believed killed and wounded but fighting was still ongoing, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media. He did not say if there were any soldiers on the ground assessing the number of casualties.
Three houses were destroyed and part of a nearby mosque was damaged, said an eyewitness who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal.
One helicopter fired on a moving car, apparently killing the occupants, said another official. A weapons cache was destroyed and two suspects running from airstrikes were arrested at a nearby checkpoint, the official added.
The increase in Egyptian counterinsurgency operations in the Sinai started after the overthrow of Morsi, accused by the military of turning a blind eye to militant activity.
On Aug. 10, military helicopters fired three missiles targeting a meeting by suspected militants in Sheikh Zuweyid, killing 12.
Army commandos late Monday arrested two members of an al-Qaida-linked group that had fired rockets at Israel, another security official said. Commandos stormed two houses in the Jura village near Sheikh Zuweyid and detained the two members of a group known as the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, he said.
The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk with the media.
The two members of the al-Qaida-linked group are also believed to have been involved in the killing of 25 off duty policemen last month near the border in one of the worst recent attacks against Egyptian security forces. The mastermind of the attack was arrested last week, and the two suspects detained Monday are accused of setting up and firing the rockets used in the attacks, the official said.
Security forces still have a long list of militants they are trying to arrest. Most are thought to be in hiding at the border area with Gaza and Israel and in the central Sinai mountains.
The Mujahideen Shura Council has claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks on Israel, most recently on August 13.
In that attempt, Israel said its "Iron Dome" missile defense system shot down a rocket launched from Egypt targeting the Red Sea resort of Eilat. There were no injuries.
Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.