Egyptian military sources revealed that "Operation Eagle" which was originally aimed at securing vital establishments in the Sinai Peninsula, has been developed early Wednesday into combat engagements with militants that will not stop until "all terrorist and criminal activity is quashed."
The sources, who spoke to Ahram Online on condition of anonymity, stressed that the Egyptian army has been using diverse weaponry – including aircraft and heavy artillery – to accomplish the mission.
"The highest-ranking leaders of the country's security apparatuses have formed a committee to run and supervise the operation," one of the sources added.
In a televised statement Wednesday afternoon, the Egyptian armed forces called on residents and Bedouin tribes in Sinai to help security troops restore order and fulfill their task.
Tensions in Egypt's North Sinai had reached new heights in the early hours of Wednesday as Egyptian security forces engaged in battles with militants across several areas of the governorate, shortly after assailants opened fire on five joint military-police checkpoints.
Exchanges of fire continued until armoured vehicles were sent in to contain the situation and many of the gunmen were either killed or injured, eyewitnesses told Al-Ahram's Arabic Language news website after the raids.
Military jets were also allegedly seen pounding several spots in the nearby town of Sheikh Zuweid as reports came in that Egyptian security troops and helicopters were combing the eastern area of El-Halal Mountain, hunting down the armed insurgents.
The Ministry of Interior confirmed Wednesday afternoon that Al-Risa, Mahager, El-Safa, El-Maasaia and El-Maghala checkpoints had been targetedby armed groups.
Al-Ahram reported that one resident from nearby Al-Arish city was injured in the crossfire at Al-Risa checkpoint, the 29th attack on this particular security barrier since Egypt's 18-day uprising last year.
Ahmed Abu-Deraa, an eyewitness speaking to Ahram Online, ratified the Interior Ministry's statement that around five checkpoints had came under fire, adding that a citizen was accidently killed after receiving a bullet to the head.
Several Egyptian security officers have also allegedly been wounded, although an official list of casualties has yet to be released. The Arish International Road has been blocked by police and military amid the turmoil.
The development of "Operation Eagle" comes two days after 16 border guards were killed by unidentified assailants in an incident that laid bare the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai Peninsula since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
Political figures – Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli – have traded accusations over the causes and perpetrators of the terror attack. However no group has 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, that 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.