Egypt launches major military assault on militant areas
Colonel Tamer Rifai took to the airwaves to announce to the nation a push was being launched against "terrorist" strongholds in the country, after years of militant activity.
Armoured vehicles and tanks were reported heading north in the Sinai, while hospitals were placed on high alert to prepare for possible casualties.
Doctors and medical staff were notified on Wednesday that all staff vacations had been cancelled for the next six months in anticipation of the assault, Mada Masr reported.
"Law enforcement forces began this morning implementing the plan of comprehensive confrontation against the terrorist and criminal elements and organisations in the north and central Sinai and other areas in the Delta of Egypt and the desert back in the west of the Nile Valley," Rifai said in the televised statement.
"This comes in addition to training and other operations on all strategic directions in order to tighten control of the ports of the Egyptian state."
Rifai called on Egyptians across the country to cooperate with the military during the offensive.
Residents in areas of operations reported high military activity on the ground and in the air, while Egyptian state media have focused on the build-up of troops.
Egypt's military have pursued Islamic State group militants in the northern Sinai region for years, after numerous bomb and gun attacks on troops in the region.
After a number of military offensives, the group is thought to have been weakened and switched from attacks on the military to softer targets such as mosques and Coptic Christian churches.
|[click to enlarge]|
IS militants have killed more than 100 Egyptian Christians since 2016 and believed to have been responsible for downing a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai in October 2015, killing all 224 passengers.
An IS attack on a mosque in the Sinai in November killed more than 300 worshippers, ramping up the pressure on President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to tackle the problem of militancy in the peninsula.
Sisi is preparing for March's presidential elections which is widely expected to be a one horse race after the arrests of and pressure on the president's opponents. But the former general - who vowed to return security to Egypt after a 2013 military coup - will likely be embarrassed by the continued attacks.
Militants believed to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, who were overthrown in the coup, have also launched assaults and assassinations on security forces and officials.
In November, Sisi gave the army a three-month deadline to restore order in the troubled Sinai following the attack.
Militancy in Egypt spiked following the 2013 coup with a wave of arrests and brutal army tactics thought to have worsened security.
Israel has also assisted the government with air strikes on IS militants in the Sinai according to media reports, but the claims have been strongly denied by Cairo.