The Egyptian army massed troops and carried out arrests on Friday to quell increasingly deadly Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula close to the borders with Gaza and Israel as President Mohammed Mursi headed to the border Rafah crossing.
Egypt also temporarily reopened the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip, which was closed after militants attacked troops last Sunday and killed 16 soldiers.
State news agency MENA said six "terrorist elements" were arrested during patrols in the North Sinai province and a security source branded them as Islamist hardliners suspected of belong to a jihadist group.
But residents of the small Sinai village of Sheikh Zuayyed said nine people were rounded up, with all insisting the men were good Muslims but had no links with Islamic extremists.
One woman told AFP news agency that her husband, Eid Saeed Salama, 72, was feeding his goats when he was taken away.
And a neighbor said government forces stormed her impoverished house and seized her 68-year-old husband Selmi Salama Sweilam who was sleeping, dragging him away "naked.”
"Armed men came in. One of them hit me and I fell to the ground," she said, adding that the government forces also confiscated 45,000 pounds (around $7,450, 6,000 euros).
A security official said, however, that authorities will press on with the operation "until we rid the Sinai of terrorism and criminals," MENA reported.
The agency also reported that authorities have released a Canadian student and two Japanese men who had been arrested in the Sinai after determining they entered the country legally.
Mursi is set to discuss border security issues at Rafah on Friday, Al Arabiya reported.
The president said on Friday that he has taken charge of the ongoing operations in Sinai and is closely following them, al-Masry al-Youm newspaper reported. These operations will not stop until things are totally “quiet,” he added.
Following Friday noon prayers at al-Hosari mosque in October 6 city, Mursi said, “I am leading the Sinai liberation operation myself so that scores can be settled.”
He also called on citizens to stand up to any person who tampers with the country’s security.
On Thursday, trucks carrying dozens of armored personnel carriers mounted with machineguns rolled through El-Arish heading to the east, where Bedouin Islamist militants have established a presence in villages near the borders with Gaza and with Israel.
The build-up came after state television reported that military helicopters and soldiers killed 20 militants on Wednesday in the first such operation in Sinai in decades, in retaliation for the raid.
Israel said on Thursday it gave Egypt the go-ahead to deploy helicopters in Sinai, easing the restrictions on military presence in the peninsula set by a 1979 peace treaty between the neighboring countries.
At a late-night meeting with Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal al-Din in El-Arish, roughly 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the Gaza border, Bedouin tribal leaders demanded to see the bodies of the militants reportedly killed on Wednesday.
“We demanded that they present us the bodies, just one or two bodies, so we can be convinced,” said Eid Abu Marzuka, one of the Bedouin who took part in the meeting.
Others said they doubted the report, which a military commander in Sinai had confirmed.
The tribal leaders said they had agreed to help the military and police to restore security in the lawless peninsula and close down tunnels used to smuggle contraband and weapons to the Gaza Strip.
“There was a consensus among the tribes to destroy the tunnels. Let (the Islamist rulers of Gaza) Hamas be upset, we don’t care. Egypt should deal with the Palestinians through the Rafah border crossing,” said Marzuka.
“We are against smuggling, and against the siege,” he added, referring to the virtual blockade Israel imposed on the enclave after Hamas seized it in 2007.
On Friday, Egyptian state television said it had been decided to reopen the Rafah crossing in the direction of Gaza only, to allow people in Egypt to return home. Among them were Palestinian Muslims who were returning from pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
It did not say how long the “exceptional” opening would last. Since his inauguration on June 30, Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi has moved to alleviate restrictions on the border crossing with Gaza.
Egypt closed the crossing after Sunday’s raid, in which militants also commandeered a military vehicle and crossed the border into Israel before being killed.
The military said the militants were supported by mortar fire from Gaza during the raid.
The Sunday attack stunned the government and prompted Mursi to sack his intelligence chief and two army generals.
The interior minister said his forces and the military would defeat the militants with the help of the Bedouin tribes, which have been hostile toward the central government they say marginalizes them.
“With the help of the people (of Sinai), the mission will succeed,” he told reporters after the meeting.
But another senior security official stationed in Sinai acknowledged that they faced an elusive enemy that had the advantage of the peninsula’s formidable mountain and desert terrain.
“It will be gradual,” he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. “The geography, the desert and mountains, will make this difficult.”
Holy Land bishops
Meanwhile, Roman Catholic bishops in the Holy Land on Friday appealed to the Egyptian government to use its increased military presence in Sinai to stamp out human trafficking rife in the lawless region.
“We, the heads of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, continue to call out to the world in our deep concern for the fate of the African asylum seekers who have been kidnapped as they pass through Sinai” they said in a statement published in Jerusalem, following a similar appeal in March.
Among the signatories to the new call were the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, his predecessor Michel Sabbah and Antonio Franco, the Apostolic Nuncio for Israel and Cyprus.
“Due to the deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai following the recent violence on the Israeli-Egyptian border, a window of opportunity opens up,” it said. “We appeal to the Egyptian government to act now.”