Asma Alsharif, KERDASA, Egypt (Reuters): Security forces and militants fought gun battles on Thursday during a government operation to wrest back control of a town near Cairo dominated by Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohamed Mursi.
A police general was killed by gunfire and at least nine policemen and soldiers were wounded by a hand grenade in the clashes in Kerdasa, 14 km (9 miles) from the capital.
Dozens of police and army vehicles entered the town at daybreak but met resistance from gunmen.
It was the second operation this week to restore control over areas where Islamist sympathies run deep and hostility to the authorities has grown since the army overthrew the Islamist Mursi on July 3.
Eleven police officers were killed in an attack on Kerdasa’s main police station on August 14. The building was hit with rocket-propelled grenades and torched after police had stormed pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo that day and killed hundreds of his supporters.
There had been little or no sign of state authority in Kerdasa since then.
“The security forces will not retreat until Kerdasa is cleansed of all terrorist and criminal nests,” Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel Latif told state media at the start of the operation.
MENA state news agency said 65 people had been arrested so far, quoting a security source. Dozens of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, had been seized, security sources said.
At the start of the raid, security forces in body armor and armed with automatic rifles fanned out in the town. Army checkpoints were set up at its entrances and militants set fire to tires to obstruct the operation.
Heavy gunfire was heard in a village near Kerdasa as police chased a group of men into side streets, television footage showed.
State television showed around a dozen residents dragging a man towards an army checkpoint, yelling “We caught one”. After handing him over to soldiers, they chanted “the army and the people are one hand”.
They said he had been caught in a car with weapons.
The television showed two men cowering in a van crying as policemen stood by, and a bearded man with his hands raised being led out of a building by police.
It also showed policemen entering buildings and courtyards with rifles raised and pointing them at windows. Helicopters hovered over the deserted streets.
Militant attacks have been on the rise since the overthrow of Mursi, Egypt’s first freely-elected president.
The army-installed authorities have launched a crackdown, saying they are in a new war on terror against the Islamists. State media have labeled the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that propelled Mursi to power last year, as an enemy of the state.
In a similar operation earlier this week, the security forces moved into the town of Delga in the southern province of Minya – another area known for Islamist sympathies and a major theatre for an insurrection waged by Islamists in the 1990s.
The army is also mounting an operation in the Sinai Peninsula against al Qaeda-inspired groups. Shootings and bomb attacks have also taken place in the Nile Valley – two members of the armed forces were shot dead in the Nile Delta on Tuesday.
In Cairo on Thursday, explosives experts defused two primitive bombs on the metro public transport system.
The August 14 attack on Kerdasa’s police station was triggered by the security forces’ assault on the pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo that same day.
In a spasm of violence, more than 100 members of the security forces were killed as well as the hundreds of Mursi supporters, and a spate of attacks targeted the Coptic Christian community.
Mass arrests have netted at least 2,000 people, mostly Mursi supporters, since his overthrow. The former president and many Brotherhood leaders have been jailed on charges of inciting violence.
Egypt has been in a state of emergency since August 14 and large parts of the country remain under a nighttime curfew. The government on Thursday shortened the hours of the curfew to start at midnight instead of 11 p.m. from Saturday. It will still start at 7 p.m. on Fridays, traditionally a day of protest.
A pro-Mursi alliance, the National Coalition to Support Legitimacy, called for nationwide protests to take place on Friday under the banner “The youth are the pillar of the revolution”.
(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti, Shadia Nasralla, Tom Perry and Yasmine Saleh, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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