Blast targets troops near Egypt-Gaza border

Soldiers were engaged in operation to clear 800 homes in area riddled with smuggling tunnels; no casualties

Illustrative photo of a military operation by Egyptian security forced near the border with southern Gaza Strip on November 2, 2014. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Illustrative photo of a military operation by Egyptian security forced near the border with southern Gaza Strip on November 2, 2014. (AFP/Said Khatib)

EL-ARISH, Egypt — An explosive device went off on Monday near Egyptian troops demolishing houses in a town on the border with the Gaza Strip where Egypt is clearing a buffer zone to halt weapons smuggling, military officials said.

The strong blast in the border town of Rafah caused no casualties, the officials say, but prompted authorities to raise the security alert level.

Rafah and its surrounding areas in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula have been under a state of emergency for more than a week since 31 troops were killed in a militant assault.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but the region has emerged as a stronghold of Islamic militants, who have carried out scores of attacks in recent months mainly targeting soldiers and police.

Over the past week, a total of 300 houses were demolished out of more than 800 targeted, housing more than 10,000 residents. The military aims to create a 500-meter wide buffer zone along the 13-kilometer borderline with Gaza extending from the Mediterranean sea.

Authorities initially gave residents a 48-hour ultimatum to leave their homes. The demolishing of the houses, even with government promises to provide compensation for those displaced, has left hard feelings among many residents — who already hold decades-long grievances against the central government. Many Sinai natives have long complained of being neglected by Cairo and now feel they are being collectively punished by heavy-handed counterterrorism and security measures.

In an attempt to assuage the people’s frustration, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said the government has allocated up to 1 billion Egyptian pounds (nearly 7 million dollars) as compensation for the residents being forced to leave their homes.

“We are responsible for elevating the suffering of the people of Sinai,” Sissi said, praising those who lost their houses by saying, “We won’t forget their sacrifice.”

El-Sissi was speaking on the sidelines of military maneuvers called Badr 2014.

Authorities also imposed a curfew from dusk to dawn and limited the movement of armored vehicles and tanks on main roads believed to be booby-trapped with roadside bombs, the officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

It’s not clear if Monday’s blast was triggered by the army’s plans to remove the houses or part of the ongoing Islamic militant activity in the region.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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