Lawless Sinai shows risks rising as Egypt fractures

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SHEIKH ZWAYD, Egypt -- Every night at dusk, the streets of this desert town near the Israeli border empty out, and the chatter and thump of gunfire and explosives begin. Morning reveals the results: another dead soldier, another police checkpoint riddled with bullets, another kidnapping. In mid-July, the body of a local Christian shop owner was found near the town cemetery, his head severed, his torso in chains.

The northern Sinai Peninsula, long a relatively lawless zone, has become a dark harbinger of what could follow elsewhere in Egypt if the interim government cannot peacefully resolve its standoff with the Islamist protesters camped out in Cairo.

In the five weeks since Egypt's military ousted the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, the endemic violence here has spiraled into something like an insurgency, with mysterious gunmen attacking military and police facilities every night.

Last week, the violence threatened to draw in Israel. On Thursday, Israel briefly closed an airport at the Red Sea resort of Eilat after Egyptian officials warned about the possibility of militants firing rockets from Sinai. The next day, up to five militant suspects were killed and a rocket launcher was destroyed in an airstrike in Sinai, state news media reported, and there were unconfirmed reports that the strike was carried out by Israel.

On Saturday, dozens of suspected militants openly joined a mass funeral procession in Cairo for four slain Egyptian insurgents killed in an Israeli drone strike in the Sinai Peninsula.

A little known militant group, Ansar Jerusalem, said its men were the target of the drone strike in Egyptian territory that killed the four militants preparing to fire rockets into Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt's military claimed that one of its helicopters carried out the strike, seeking to limit public criticism about allowing Israel to carry out strikes on its soil.

In its statement, Ansar Jerusalem denounced the Egyptian military for having allowed the Israeli attack.

"What is greater treason than the Egyptian army allowing the Zionist drones to violate Egyptian airspace now and then?" it said.

The statement's authenticity could not be confirmed, but it was posted on a website commonly used by militant groups.

The Sinai attacks by militants have taken about 62 lives, officials say, not counting the 60 suspects that the Egyptian authorities claim to have killed. There has also been a troubling rise in attacks on Christians, who are fleeing the area in large numbers.

Although the world's attention has been focused on Cairo, where about 140 Islamist Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been killed in clashes with the police since Mr, Morsi's ouster, the chaos in Sinai in some ways represents a more troubling prospect. Unlike the Brotherhood, which has a longstanding commitment to nonviolence, the jihadists here are out for blood, and they appear to have been energized by the military's reassertion of power. Some Egyptians fear a renewal of the kind of terrorism they suffered during the 1990s, especially if the military resorts to an even broader and more forceful crackdown.

The northern Sinai may be both a symptom and a cause of Egypt's festering crisis: One of the military's reasons for ousting Mr. Morsi was the belief that he was too soft on the jihadists here and saw them as potential allies. Yet the military, for all its warlike talk, seems unable to thwart the mysterious bands of gunmen who own the night here.

"We are living in a state of constant terror, but we see nothing from the police or the army," said Mitri Shawqi Mitri, a 53-year-old Christian shopkeeper whose son, Mina, was kidnapped by gunmen early this month. "Everything has stopped for us, there is no work, all the churches have closed, the priests have fled."

Most residents here say the authorities appear to be on the defensive, with soldiers and the police hunkered down at their posts and suffering daily casualties.

Although the attackers mainly hit the police and the military, a dozen civilians have been killed in the cross-fire and many others have been wounded, according to local hospital officials.


Associated Press contributed.


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