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Egypt forms 'unified command' to fight Sinai militants

Sisi announcement of new army command comes after at least 30 killed in deadly Sinai attack
Welayet Sinai hit military institutions around North Sinai and in the port town of Suez (AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday ordered the formation of a unified command for the eastern Suez region with what he said was the aim of fighting terrorism in the region, including the restive Sinai Peninsula.

In a presidential decree, Sisi appointed General Rushdi Askar, one of the Egyptian army's top leaders, as the commander of the new force after promoting him to Lieutenant General, according Egypt's state television.  

Sisi stressed in a televised speech addressed to the Egyptian people on Saturday evening, that the battle for Egypt will be long and difficult, but victory will come.

"Whatever choice the Egyptian people make, I will execute it with full honesty, stregthn and sincerity,” he said.

"We will not leave Sinai, we will either keep it for the Egyptians or we will die for it,” he added, calling on Egyptians to keep their spirits high and stressing that any change can only come from within.]

He also subtly linked Thursday's attack to the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the fact that the attack was claimed by Welayat Sinai, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis before the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

"I’ve said it before and I will say it again, we are fighting the strongest secret organisation of the last two centuries," he said.

He confirmed that the scheduled Sharm el-Sheikh World Economic Conference will be held as planned adding that "we go hungry for the sake of building Egypt."

Qassam Brigades banned

Also on Saturday, an Egyptian court banned the armed wing of Hamas, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, and designated the military arm a "terrorist organisation".

In the Court of Urgent Matters' verdict, officials said the brigades were involved in "several terrorist operations" including an attack on Thursday in North Sinai that killed at least 30 security personnel and injured 40 civilians.

The attacks were claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a militant movement that has changed its name to "Welayet Sinai" (the State of Sinai) last year after it swore allegiance to the Islamic State, a larger militant group that has overrun vast territories in both Iraq and Syria.

The verdict came after Egyptian lawyer Samir Sabri filed a lawsuit accusing Hamas' of supporting Egyptian "terrorist attacks" and using tunnels between Sinai and Gaza to smuggle weapons and funds.

Sisi, who was in Ethiopia attending the African summit when the latest attacks took place in North Sinai on Monday, ended his trip and came back to Egypt.

Egyptian security forces have been waging a campaign against militants in Sinai – which shares borders with both Israel and the Gaza Strip – amid a rise in attacks on army and police personnel since the ousting of elected President Mohamed Morsi in mid-2013.

On 24 October, at least 31 soldiers were killed in an attack on a military site in North Sinai, prompting Egyptian authorities to declare a state of emergency and curfew in some of the province.

A day later, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in a televised speech, said “the problem of Rafah and the Rafah border line” would be tackled.

Within weeks, the Egyptian military began evacuating hundreds of Egyptian families from their homes in Rafah. Around 800 homes were destroyed and a 500-metre area along 13 miles of the border between Gaza and Egypt was cleared. Top security officials said the aim was to create a buffer zone to prevent weapons and militants from being smuggled across the border.

Then, earlier this month, Abdel Fattah Harhoor, governor of North Sinai, said that all of Rafah would be destroyed.

Since the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in June 2013, tensions between Egypt and Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood ruling Gaza, have escalated. 

Ahead of the clearing of Rafah for the new buffer zone, Egypt had reportedly destroyed more than 1,000 tunnels. 

Their destruction has not only made it difficult to get food and other supplies into the blockaded Gaza Strip, but also revenues from taxing tunnel operators have also dried up. 

Over the past year, this has become as serious issue as more than 45,000 Hamas government workers have been on lower than half-pay or not receiving salaries at all, a challenge that has continued with Fatah-Hamas unity government tensions.

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