EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian troops killed a leader of an al-Qaida inspired group in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula Tuesday, the latest blow to the myriad of militant organizations operating in the region, the military's spokesman said.
Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said Mohammed Hussein Muhareb and his son were killed after troops closed in on his motorcade and a firefight ensued. He said Muhareb was wanted for taking part in various attacks against troops in the region.
Another militant on a motorcycle was also killed, Ali said, while one officer was wounded and four militants were arrested. Two military officials in Sinai said some militants fled in another car after the fighting, in an area between al-Joura and al-Muqatta village, south of the town of Sheikh Zuweid. They said the troops were acting on a tip.
Muhareb, 62, known by his alias Abu Mounir, was the main suspect and leader of a militant cell believed to be behind the August attack that killed 25 Egyptian police conscripts, one of the worst ever militant attacks against troops in northern Sinai.
In the latest of a stepped-up campaign of attacks against troops, a suicide car bomb hit a bus convoy of off-duty Egyptian soldiers last week in the Sinai Peninsula, killing 11 soldiers and wounding 37.
The northern Sinai region, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel, has been restless for years. Extremist militants operate in disparate groups there and are believed to have grown in numbers since the political upheaval following the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, largely due to a negligible police presence in the area.
But attacks have grown more frequent since last July's overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who had pursued a policy of negotiating with militant groups in the region. This summer, government troops intensified their raids in towns and villages there, killing and arresting a number of suspects.
Military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Monday there is no more tolerance for attacks on his troops. "No more mercy or hesitation for those who raise arms against the military," he told a group of officers in televised comments.
Muhareb is widely respected among the various militant groups in Sinai, and was a leading figure in a radical group known as Takfir wil-Hijra. The movement's members, dubbed "Takfiris," lead secretive, isolated lives where anything and anyone that does not adhere to their rigid interpretation of Islam is deemed heretical — including the government and its security forces.
Another leading member of the group, Abdel-Fatah Hassan Salem, was arrested late last month. Muhareb was known as the "sheik of Takfiris." He used to preach in a mosque in al-Muqatta village. The mosque has been badly damaged during earlier clashes between troops and militants. His house was also destroyed in a previous security raid, the officials said. At least two other of Muhareb's sons were killed in clashes with troops over the past eight years. The officials were speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.