EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Islamic militants clashed for more than two hours Sunday with army and police in the Sinai Peninsula, wounding seven people in fighting touched off by a security dragnet, Egyptian officials said.
The officials backed away from an earlier report that the militants had taken children hostage to be used as human shields, saying that the fighters instead jumped briefly behind a school wall to hide as children were arriving.
The fighting broke out after police backed by the military staged dawn raids on a number of homes in Sheik Zuweyid, a desert village about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from northern Sinai’s main city of el-Arish. Officials said four men suspected of belonging to extremist militant groups were arrested.
The raid was part of a major security sweep in Sinai in response to a brazen attack by suspected Islamic militants on a military outpost near the Egypt-Israel-Gaza border on Aug. 5 that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity according to police and military regulations.
The rugged Sinai peninsula of barren deserts and daunting mountains with a population of around 400,000 has long been a volatile corner of Egypt, home to militants, smugglers, and restive tribes.
Following last year’s uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak from power, Sinai has spiraled out of control. Across Egypt, police and internal security forces fell apart during the uprising. They have returned to the streets in some areas, but in Sinai, particularly in the north, their presence remains weak.
In a sign of how emboldened the militants have become, during Sunday’s fighting a group chased down 13 armored personnel carriers that had conducted the raids, firing on them and at a helicopter involved in the security sweep.
Three policemen, two soldiers and two civilians, a 10 year-old girl and an elderly Bedouin woman, were wounded in two hours of fighting in Sheik Zuweyid, officials said.
Later the same morning, militants in Land Cruisers fired rocket-propelled grenades and bullets at northern Sinai’s main security headquarters in el-Arish, two police stations in the area and a checkpoint. No one was wounded in those attacks.
Such attacks are common in the Sinai.
On Friday, in the midst of protests across against an anti-Islam film produced in the United States, militants waving black banners and shouting “God is great!” stormed an international peacekeepers’ base in northern Sinai and battled troops, wounding two Colombians. They stole some weapons and radio equipment, officials said.
The base near the border with Gaza and Israel houses some 1,500 members of the force, including US troops.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.