EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian soldiers backed by attack helicopters swept through several villages in the strategic Sinai peninsula early Friday, part of an offensive aimed at driving out al-Qaida-inspired groups, a military official and a witness said.
The military assault came a day after a group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility for two suicide car bombings that targeted a military intelligence headquarters and a checkpoint in the peninsula, killing six.
Helicopter gunships targeted suspected Islamic militant hideouts in a number of villages south of the town of Sheikh Zuweyid and farmlands near the city of el-Arish at sunrise, a military official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
Sheik Hassan Khalaf, who lives in a village some five kilometers (three miles) from the targeted areas, said that he saw smoke billowing in the sky after hearing loud explosions starting from 5 a.m.
"I think that the suicide attacks are desperate attempt to repel military assault," Khalaf said in a telephone interview. "But as a resident here, I hope the military never stops until they are all out of here."
Earlier, tribesmen expressed anger over two elders being accidentally shot and the military demolishing of homes in middle of the fighting.
"Those Takfiris are hiding in middle of the residential areas. It's a war and it is very possible that people get shot in the middle. This is unavoidable," Khalaf said, referring to extremists who reject anyone who doesn't follow their strict interpretation of Islam as heretics.
Egypt is witnessing a spike in suicide attacks, mainly in Sinai where al-Qaida-inspired groups have taken hold after the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the period that followed when embattled police vanished from the streets.
Some groups targeted security forces, driving them out of the northern cities and towns. Others concentrated on striking gas pipelines to Israel and launching rockets at Israel.
The militant groups appear to have unified after the July 3 military coup that toppled President Mohammed Morsi after millions took to the streets demanding him to step down.
Friday's attack is part of a new offensive launched last week by the Egyptian military in the Sinai. The offensive comes as more than 70 police officers and soldiers have been killed by militants. In the worst single attack, gunmen pulled police recruits from buses, ordered them to lay on the ground and shot 25 of them to death on Aug. 19.
A total of 29 militants were killed in the three-day military offensive that began Sept. 7. Officials did not immediately offer casualty figures for Friday's offensive.
On Wednesday, militants launched the suicide attack on the military intelligence headquarters and a checkpoint in the town of Rafah, which sits on Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip. Military officials initially said nine soldiers died. Officials now say they believe six soldiers were killed.
In a statement posted on Islamic websites late Thursday night, Jund al-Islam said that the attacks came in retaliation for "el-Sissi militias of traitors (in) the Egyptian army" who are launching "a direct war against Islam." The message refers to Egypt's Defense Minister and Military Chief Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi.
The statement appeared identical to an earlier statement by another Sinai-based group, Ansar Jerusalem, which claimed responsibility for the failed assassination attempt on Egypt's Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim last week. That attack, in the heart of Cairo, killed one person and wounded more than 20. The minister escaped unharmed.