Egypts battle against jihadists will be a long one: Sisi

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Saturday the battle against jihadist insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula would be a long and hard one, as violence there continues unabated.

His comments came as a Cairo court banned the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, declaring it a “terrorist” organisation after accusations it backs militant attacks in Sinai.

Sisi spoke following a meeting with his top brass two days after militants killed 30 people and wounded dozens in attacks, including a car bombing, in North Sinai.

Thursday’s attacks were claimed by militants from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State jihadist group.

And on Saturday an interior ministry employe was shot in the head in North Sinai’s regional capital of El-Arish.

“The battle will be difficult, hard and hellish, and it will be long,” Sisi said in remarks on state television.

Flanked by his top generals and occasionally raising his voice in anger, Sisi said “we will not abandon the Sinai to anyone.”

He also announced the creation of a unified anti-terrorist military command, which military sources said would expand operations in Sinai and be allocated more weapons and troops.

Sisi also repeated accusations that the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood of deposed president Mohamed Morsi is behind the violence, a claim the group denies.

Late Saturday, security sources said the army fired on “a car driven by a suicide bomber and blew it up as it approached a military checkpoint” in Sheikh Zuweid, east of El-Arish.

The sources also reported clashes between soldiers and gunmen south of Rafah, on the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

The report came hours after an Egyptian court ruled on a complaint from a lawyer that Hamas’s Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades was directly involved in “terrorist operations” in the Sinai.

A court official said the lawyer also accused the movement of using tunnels under the common border to smuggle arms used in attacks against the police and army.

Since Egypt’s military ousted Morsi in 2013, the authorities have accused Hamas of aiding the jihadists.

Egypt’s military says it has destroyed more than 1,600 tunnels since Morsi’s ouster.

– Hamas ‘has conducted attacks’ –

In the ruling, the judge said “the documents submitted by the plaintiff to the court showed that the organisation has conducted attacks… that targeted the military and the Egyptian police and facilities.”

There was no immediate reaction from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades itself, but a source close to the militant group said “Egypt is no longer a mediator between us and the Israeli occupier”.

Despite worsening relations between Hamas and Sisi, the former army chief and architect of Morsi’s fall, Cairo has been mediating between Hamas and Israel, including during last summer’s war in Gaza.

Hamas, meanwhile, denounced the Egyptian ruling as “a dangerous political decision that serves the interests of the occupier,” referring to Israel.

In early January, Egypt began work on doubling the width of a buffer zone along the border with Gaza to prevent militants infiltrating from the enclave.

The buffer zone was created following a suicide bombing on October 24 that killed 30 Egyptian soldiers and wounded scores.

After that incident, Cairo declared a three-month state of emergency in parts of North Sinai, a remote but strategic region bordering Israel and Gaza.

Last week the decree was extended by three months.

On Thursday militant attacks, including a car bombing, claimed by the Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) group left at least 30 people dead in North Sinai.

And on Friday, an interior ministry employee was shot dead in his home in the provincial capital El-Arish, officials said.

Jihadists in the Sinai have killed scores of policemen and soldiers since Morsi’s overthrow, vowing revenge against a crackdown on his supporters that has killed more than 1,400 people.

Last March, Cairo banned and outlawed Hamas operations on Egyptian soil, ordering the freezing of its assets.


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