EL-ARISH, Egypt - Egyptian troops and tanks backed by helicopter gunships swept through villages in the northern Sinai Peninsula near the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip on Monday, the third day of a major offensive against Islamic extremists, a military official said. So far, some 20 suspected militants have been killed and 20 captured in the operation, he added.
A day earlier, an al-Qaida-inspired militant group based in the area claimed responsibility for last week's failed assassination attempt on Egypt's interior minister, describing the Cairo attack as a "suicide" car bomb.
The claim could not be independently verified but it appeared on militant websites that regularly distribute statements from al-Qaida-linked groups. If true, it would mark the first time Sinai militants took their fight into the heart of the Egyptian capital with a suicide attack.
Tourist resorts along the southern coast of the rocky, desert region saw a string of suicide bombings in the mid-2000s that left at least 125 people dead and triggered mass arrests and detentions of thousands of Bedouin tribesman. The crackdown soured relations between locals and the central government, intensifying the Bedouins' feelings of mistreatment and turning the northern end of the peninsula into an incubator for Islamic extremism.
Like Ansar Jerusalem, other Sinai-based al-Qaida inspired groups have been blamed for a spike of attacks against military and police in northern Sinai since the military ousted former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.
The increase in violence has raised suspicions of links between Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic militant groups. Military officials have accused Morsi of handling the groups too leniently and striking a truce with them to halt their attacks in return for suspending military operations against them during his year in office. This truce, they say, gave militants free reign to stockpile weapons, evidenced by the large caches of anti-aircraft missiles, mortars, and RPGs and other weapons seized by the army since Saturday.
In the Ansar Jerusalem statement posted late Sunday, the group said it carried out the attack on Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim's motorcade to avenge Muslims killed by security forces during their violent Aug. 14 dismantlement of two sprawling encampments set up in Cairo by pro-Morsi supporters demanding his reinstatement. The day left hundreds dead in what was an unprecedented bloodbath. It also sparked a wave of unrest across the country where pro-Morsi supporters attacked churches and police stations.
"The Interior Ministry, the slaughterer, has seen death with its own eyes from a martyrdom operation carried out by a lion of Egypt's lions," the statement said. "What is coming will be worse," it added.
"We pledge to God the Almighty to seek revenge for Muslims on all those who contributed to their killings and assaulting their honor, above all el-Sissi and Mohammed Ibrahim," it said, also referring to Egypt's Military Chief Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi who led the coup against Morsi after millions took to the streets demanding his resignation for abuse of power.
The statement urged Muslims to stay away from the ministries of interior and defense, indicating that these two institutions will be targeted.
It also showed an ideological proximity to al-Qaida, citing an Aug. 3 statement by the group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, that mocked the democratic process and called upon "soldiers of the Quran to wage the war for the Quran," the Muslim holy book.
An Egyptian security official said authorities are still studying the statement, but confirmed that human remains suspected to belong to the suicide bomber were found inside the car used in the bombing. The Health Ministry said that one person died a day later of wounds sustained during the attack, and more than 20 were injured.
Ansar Jerusalem does not have a proven record of carrying out attacks outside of Sinai. It has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on gas pipelines to Israel, rockets targeting Israel and a 2012 shootout along the Israeli-Egyptian border in which three militants and an Israeli soldier were killed.
The army however has targeted it along with several other Islamic militant groups in its current operation.
In northern Sinai, mobile phone networks, landlines and the Internet were down early Monday as the military resumed its strikes on alleged militant hideouts in the southern town of Rafah, according to the military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Besides those killed and captured in the operation, a number of suspects have fled to coastal villages or tried to enter Gaza through underground tunnels.