CAIRO (AP) — Smoke billowed in the sky as Egyptian helicopter gunships rocketed suspected Islamic militant hideouts in the lawless northern Sinai Peninsula for a second day on Sunday, part of the largest military offensive in the region in years, military officials said.
They say the assault aims to drive out al-Qaida inspired groups from several villages of the restive border region, where Islamic militants have established strongholds and stockpiled an unprecedented amount of weapons.
Gen. Osama Askar of the 3rd Army told reporters troops had seized at least 10 shoulder-fired Sam-7 anti-aircraft missiles a day earlier. They were found in a mosque and in homes of suspected militants in the town of Sheikh Zuweyid, near the border with the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Western officials say thousands of shoulder-launched missiles went missing from Libyan arsenals since that country's 2011 civil war. Egyptian authorities say Libyan missiles have been smuggled into the Sinai, and some of those have gone on through underground tunnels to Gaza.
Sunday's airstrikes targeted the villages of el-Mahdiya and el-Moqataa on the outskirts of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweyid. One official said U.S.-made Apache helicopters hit shacks, houses, olive farms and cars used by militants. The strikes paved the way for a ground offensive, he added, allowing troops backed by armored vehicles to sweep homes of suspected militants. A total of nine suspected militants have been killed and nine others arrested since Saturday, he said.
In a new statement Saturday, Armed Forces spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said that helicopters had provided air cover for what was "the biggest security operation" in the northern Sinai in years. He said troops arrested at least nine suspected militants in at least seven villages on Saturday.
Ali's statement, posted on his official Facebook page, also said that 118 houses and farms used as hideouts had been demolished in the operation by Saturday.
A second military official in Cairo told Associated Press that the military was surprised by the amount and type of weapons found in the areas.
"We found heavy weapons, explosive belts for suicide bombers, mortars, RPGs, anti-aircraft missiles and maps with positions of the military in the region," he said. "They were waging a war against us."
He declined to give a timeframe for the offensive, saying that the military will not leave until it has driven out the militants. He added that the military has a long list of wanted militants.
Residents witnessed columns of trucks and armored vehicles pouring into the area on Saturday. Some said they hadn't seen foot soldiers in their villages in decades. Communications were jammed for hours, as authorities seized control of two telephone exchanges. All roads leading up to the northern region of the peninsula have been sealed off and troops have encircled a dozen villages. Some local tribal leaders have expressed relief over the operation, but others remain skeptical, saying innocent men have been arrested arbitrarily.
Over the past weeks, the military has also bulldozed homes along the Gaza border and caved in tunnels beneath them in preparations for creating a buffer zone to reduce weapon smuggling and militant crossings.
Officials say the wanted militants are believed to be responsible for a series of attacks in a region they overran after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Since the overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi on July 3, Sinai has witnessed a spike of deadly and near-daily attacks. The Cairo-based military official accused Morsi of giving militants free reign to stockpile weaponry by making deals with them to cease attacks when he was in office in return for amnesty and a halt of military action against them. The militants, the officials say, belong to a number of well-known al-Qaida-inspired groups that seek the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the northern Sinai.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
In Cairo, a virtually Islamist-free panel tasked to amend the country's now-suspended 2012 constitution convened for the first time as authorities push to roll back Morsi's legacy and implement a transition plan to democracy.
With presidential and parliamentary elections planned for early next year, Islamists have seen their clout drastically reduced in Egypt's near future — a radical reversal from the initial post-Mubarak period when they formed new political parties and won five successive elections.
In its first session, the 50-member panel dominated by secularists and liberals chose as its head veteran diplomat and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa. They also began to lay out the procedure and framework for revising disputed articles of the Islamist-backed charter.
The panel has only two months to finalize constitutional amendments already proposed by 10 experts before the public votes on the text.
"I feel optimism as we are paving the road for a new era where the constitution will be its base," Moussa said after being elected. The session was aired live on state TV.
It will be the third time since Egypt's 2011 uprising against Mubarak that the constitution has been amended.
A military-appointed panel amended the constitution after Mubarak's overthrow, before a new charter was adopted in 2012 under Morsi. Liberals and secularists said their objections to much of the text were ignored.
This time around, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood — many of whose leaders have been rounded up in a mass crackdown — is not represented on the panel. Gehad Haddad, a group spokesman, reiterated its rejection of the interim leaders' transition plan and vowed to continue protests against it. The group now stages only small protests across the country in order to avoid the crackdown.
The ultraconservative Salafi al-Nour party, the only religiously based party that supported Morsi's overthrow, will participate in the panel, however, its leader said, despite earlier objections.
"There was opposition within the party but after taking votes, the majority agreed to participate," Younis Makhyoun told The Associated Press.
"We wanted to have a voice to defend the revolution and to defend the identity articles," he said, referring to Islamist fears that a secular majority on the panel will remove articles that could give Islamic law a bigger role in legislation.
He criticized interim president Adly Mansour for giving only one seat to Islamists on the panel. "This is a blatant and outrageous exclusion of the Islamist parties by the current ruling government," he said.
Al-Nour has suffered internal division after siding with the military and liberals in Morsi's removal. Many of its members are believed to have split from the party and joined pro-Morsi protest camps that security forces broke up violently on Aug. 14. Hundreds were killed at the sit-ins and during the ensuing days of violence across the country.
The panel includes three representatives from Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's premier religious authority. Professional unions, universities and the arts are also represented.
Four panel members come from youth groups involved in the protests that toppled both Morsi and Mubarak, and three Christian clerics are also members although no private Christian citizens. Only five women are on the panel.