Egypt troops move against Islamist stronghold

KERDASA, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian security forces backed by combat vehicles and helicopters stormed a town near the Pyramids, famed among tourists for its traditional rugs and dresses, aiming to drive out Islamist militants who held sway there for over a month, brandishing their weapons as they roamed its streets.

After troops swept in, many residents of Kerdasa greeted the forces with cheers, women ululating, and others handing them out soft drinks, one witness said. The assault, in which a police general was shot to death by militants, highlighted authorities’ stepped-up resolve to move against strongholds of armed supporters of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted by the military on July 3.

But Kerdasa residents expressed fear that the security crackdown will only drive out the militants temporarily. They said nearby villages on Cairo’s western outskirts, which are home to some of Egypt’s well-known families with a history of militancy, will continue to provide cover for those who took control of the town.

“I wish this had happened a month ago,” said Youssef Hussein, a resident of Kerdasa, hailing the early morning raid on his hometown. “We have been living in a bubble. We thought we could die every day. Kerdasa has really been wrecked.”

The offensive showcases an Egyptian society still in turmoil over Morsi’s ouster. The new military-backed leadership has been a wide-scale crackdown on his supporters, while the most hard-core elements of Morsi’s Islamist backers have unleashed a campaign of violence ranging from car bombs to attacks on Christians. No side appears interested in a political settlement.

Militants took control of Kerdasa in mid-August, when a mob attacked the local police station, killed 15 policemen and mutilated their bodies, dragging some by cars, scalping at least one and pouring acid on another. It was part of a wave of retaliatory violence after security forces cracked down on the main pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo with heavy assaults that killed hundreds.

Earlier this week, a large army-police force stormed another town where militants took control after the coup — Dalga, in southern Egypt.

On Thursday, they turned to Kerdasa, with a large force of troops and policemen encircling the town at around 6 a.m.

The police general fell in the first moments. On a highway overpass on Kerdasa’s edge, Gen. Nabil Farrag had just addressed his men to rev them up for the fight, telling them, “Let’s go, men! Go in, toward martyrdom.”

Almost immediately, they came under a hail of gunfire from nearby rooftops, according to an Associated Press photographer and video journalists at the scene.

Army soldiers and policemen ducked for cover. Farrag fell with a bullet wound in his right side, getting past the body armor he was wearing. He lay in the street for nearly 15 minutes, blood soaking through his white uniform, until his men could reach him, carrying him into a military vehicle that took him to a hospital.

The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, later announced Farrag’s death.

The troops moved into the town, conducting house-to-house raids searching for wanted militants. They arrested 65 suspects, including three wanted for the attack on the police station, state TV reported. A special forces colonel, Hassan Moussa, told the private CBC station that his forces seized automatic weapons and hand grenades in the raids.

At least 10 policemen were wounded in two grenade attacks during the sweeps, police Gen. Medhat el-Menshawy said.

By the evening, the security forces moved to besiege the neighboring village of Nahya, home to families linked to the hard-line Gamaa Islamiya group and other militants, state TV reported.

Kerdasa residents celebrated the troops’ entry, Hussein said. Women ululated, and one of the town’s poorest widows bought soft drinks to hand out to the soldiers, he said.

“Gunmen on motorcycles used to drive around the town, urging people to go out to protest,” he said. “Many in the rallies visibly had automatic rifles on them. No one could object or get in their way.”

Kerdasa, once a village in an agricultural area west of Cairo that swelled into a densely populated center with over 800,000 residents in the town and surrounding villages, is more strategic than Dalga, in the south.

It is short drive from Cairo’s center and is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt’s primary tourist attraction. Kerdasa itself was a popular stop on tourist itineraries because of its shops selling traditional carpets and clothes.

“People sold their land. Shops have closed,” Hussein said, describing the turmoil that has hit the area in the past year since Morsi took office, when influence of hard-liners grew in Kerdasa and many other parts of the country.

He said despite the raid and the authorities’ lock-down on the city, Kerdasa remains vulnerable to the surrounding villages.

“Kerdasa is a flower, and the villages that surround it, come and take everything from it,” he said. “These gunmen used to come from the areas around… They have not arrested everybody. I wish they could.”

Authorities named more than 140 people suspected of involvement in the police killings, including several members of Gamaa Islamiya, which waged an armed insurgency in the 1990s. The group later renounced violence and was a strong Morsi ally before and during his year in office.

More than a 1,000 people have died in political violence since June 30 when millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand the ouster of Morsi. Since the July 3 coup that removed him, Morsi has been detained at an undisclosed location.

The European Union special representative to the Southern Mediterranean, Bernadino Leon, said he met in Egypt with officials in the interim government, as well as representatives from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group.

The European diplomat, who has acted as a go-between over the past year of turmoil, said mistrust between the opponents remains deep, calling for measures to build trust and move on to an inclusive political process.

“Confrontation will lead nowhere,” he told reporters.

In an attempt to ease exceptional measures in place for over a month, the government relaxed a nighttime curfew slapped on the country since mid-August for two hours effective Saturday to start at midnight and be lifted at 5 a.m. The curfew relaxation comes ahead of the start of the school year. The curfew on Friday will continue to start at 7 p.m. but will also end at 5 a.m.

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AP correspondent Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.

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