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UPDATED: Egyptian troops strike hard in North Sinai after multiple attacks

Armed forces hit back early on Wednesday, staging a new operation against militants who have been targeting security personnel on the peninsula

Hatem Maher and Sherif Tarek, Wednesday 8 Aug 2012
Egypt-Gaza borders
Members of Hamas security forces patrol on the border between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip, near Rafah August 6, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)
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Tensions in Egypt's North Sinai reached new heights in the early hours of Wednesday as Egyptian security forces engaged in battles with militants in several areas of the governorate shortly after assailants opened fire on three joint military-police checkpoints.

Many checkpoints, especially in the city of Arish, saw exchanges of fire. Egyptian security troops and helicopters were reported to be combing the eastern area of El-Halal Mountain, hunting for armed insurgents.

According to eyewitnesses quoted by Al-Ahram's Arabic-language news website, many of the gunmen were killed or injured in the raids. Several Egyptian security were reportedly injured too. No accurate death or injury tolls have yet been released.

Eyewitnesses also said that Egyptian military jets pounded several spots in the town of Sheikh Zuweid while chasing suspects.

The attacks of three joint military-police checkpoints late on Tuesday night came two days after 16 border guards were killed by as-yet unidentified assailants in an incident that laid bare security problems on the Sinai Peninsula.

A resident from Al-Arish city was injured in the crossfire as gunmen attacked Al-Risa checkpoint. The two other checkpoints were on the main road between Al-Arish and Rafah, the city that was at the centre of Sunday's deadly attacks. No deaths were reported from the checkpoint attacks.

Exchanges of fire lasted until the early hours of Wednesday before armoured vehicles were sent in an attempt to contain the situation, eyewitnesses told Al-Ahram's news website.

It was the 29th attack on Al-Risa checkpoint since Egypt's 2011 uprising.

The northern parts of Sinai have sunk into a state of lawlessness since last year's 18-day uprising that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak.

But the situation took a severe turn for the worse on Sunday with the attack on Egyptian troops at the border with the Gaza Strip, governed by the Islamist group Hamas.

Political figures  Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli  have traded accusations over the causes and perpetrators of the terror attack. No one has yet claimed responsibility.

The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Egypt President Mohamed Morsi hails,  accused Israel's intelligence agency Mossad of carrying out the attack to "hinder Egypt’s progress."

Hamas and Israel have both distanced themselves from the attack, which the latter's defence minister Ehud Barak said hoped would serve as a "wake-up call" to Egypt, which has been struggling to assert control over the Sinai peninsula.

Morsi declared three days of mourning for the slain border guards. A military funeral was held on Tuesday.

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