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Egypt army announces major operation in Sinai, closes Gaza border

Egypt is battling an insurgency by the Islamic State group in the Sinai that has killed hundreds of members of the security forces
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (AFP/File)
Israel reportedly intervened in Sinai after becoming alarmed at Egypt's inability to curb the insurgency

Egypt closed its Rafah border with the Gaza Strip on Friday as its army launched a major operation in the Nile Delta and the northern Sinai Peninsula, heart of a persistent Islamic State group insurgency.

The head of Hamas, the Islamist group which runs Gaza, was however permitted to travel to Cairo for talks before the border was closed a day earlier than planned.

"Law enforcement forces began this morning implementing the comprehensive confrontation against the terrorist and criminal elements and organizations in northern and central Sinai," an army spokesman said in a televised statement.

The goal is to tighten control of border districts and "clean up areas where there are terrorist hotbeds", and security forces were put on "maximum alert" for the duration of the operation, the statement added.

Friday was supposed to be the final of a three-day border opening for humanitarian cases from Gaza, the first time the Rafah border crossing with Egypt had been open in 2018.

"The Rafah border was closed today due to the security situation in Sinai, we were informed by the Egyptian authorities," said Saleh al-Zaq, head of the civil affairs committee which controls the borders.

The Egyptian army announced Friday morning the launch of a major operation against jihadists across swathes of territory, including the Sinai Peninsula bordering Gaza.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya crossed the border to Cairo for talks with Egyptian leaders before Rafah was closed, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said.

He said the talks would include an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal between Hamas and rival Palestinian movement Fatah that has faltered, with multiple deadlines missed.

Egypt has been waging a military campaign against jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, since the army overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

A report by the New York Times last Saturday said that Israel has carried out more than 100 air strikes against Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Sinai with Cairo's approval.

Egypt has denied the report.

Citing British and American officials who requested anonymity, the newspaper reported that the strikes have been ongoing for more than two years, using unmarked drones, helicopters and jets.

Israel reportedly intervened in the vast desert territory to its south after becoming alarmed at Egypt's inability to throttle the insurgency.

In November, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is seeking re-election in polls next month, ordered the armed forces chief of staff to restore security in Sinai within three months after militants killed more than 300 worshipers at a mosque.

Jihadists have also attacked tourists, killing all 224 on board a Russian plane carrying holidaymakers in 2015.

AFP contributed to this report.

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