By Amina Ismail, McClatchy Newspapers –
CAIRO, Egypt — Egyptian officials announced Saturday that their first major military offensive into Sinai since the inauguration of President Mohammed Morsi led to the deaths of 32 “criminals,” the destruction of 31 tunnels used for smuggling, and coordination between Israelis and Egyptians.
The news conference at which the announcement was made itself was notable, an apparent effort by the government to be more transparent after months in which the military council that governed after the fall of Hosni Mubarak rarely explained its actions. A month ago, Morsi fired the key members of that council, and on Saturday, armed forces spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali vowed to answer reporters’ questions. He even offered an e-mail address, unusual in a nation that’s been led historically by an opaque government.
The rise of Islamist groups in the Sinai has become a source of concern for both the Egyptian government and Israel since Mubarak was ousted, but it was a raid last month in which 16 Egyptian troops died that sparked the current Egyptian crackdown.
Ali stressed that Egypt has coordinated its current operations with Israel, which had expressed concern that the Egyptian use of so-called heavy brigades in the Sinai violated the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement.
“Using armed forces throughout Sinai is not considered to be a violation to the peace treaty,” he said. “We respect all our international agreements without compromising Egypt’s national security.” Coordinating with Israel, he added, “benefits all.”
Ali said the current Egyptian operation has as its goal to eradicate criminal gangs operating in the Sinai, where criminal and terrorist activity have been the norm for decades.
In addition to the 32 killed, Ali said another 38 were arrested. Of those, 20 were released. He estimated there are as many as 600 criminals operating in the area.
In addition, there are roughly 225 tunnels, which are used to smuggle weapons, supplies, food and ammunition to neighboring Gaza. Ali said troops had seized rockets, RPGs, and arms from the tunnels, but did not provide details of how many. He said the Army had seized 20 cars used by criminal elements.
Ali said that once the military operation ends, the government hopes to invest more than $200 million in a Sinai development project. Sinai residents have long complained that the government in Cairo has done little to improve living conditions there.