CAIRO (AP) — Security forces backed by armored vehicles and helicopters on Monday stormed a town south of Cairo that had been held for over two months by militants loyal to the ousted Islamist president, swiftly taking control despite some resistance from gunmen.
The pre-dawn operation to retake Dalga in Minya province underlined the resolve of the military-backed government to pursue Islamic militants behind a wave of violence in several parts of the country following the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in a popularly backed July 3 military coup. Minya in particular suffered a collapse of security, with militants torching and looting courthouses, churches, local government buildings and police stations.
Army troops are also going after militants in the strategic Sinai Peninsula where attacks on security forces have grown more frequent, and deadlier, since Morsi's ouster.
Dalga, some 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of Cairo, attracted nationwide attention because militants there threw out the local police force and took over the town after Morsi's ouster. Supporters of the deposed president have been touting Dalga as a place where opposition to the coup is universal. The pro-government media, however, has been urging authorities to assert its authority and rid the town of "terrorists."
Many of Dalga's minority Christians, about 20,000 of the town's 120,000 residents, have been paying militants for their protection. One of two churches torched by the militants in August is thought to be 1,600 years old. Remains of revered clerics buried in the church were exhumed and scattered and ancient icons were taken away. Holes were also dug into church grounds by people seeking buried treasure.
Local activists Adel Shafiq in Dalga and Ezzat Ibrahim in nearby Malawi said a joint force of army and police entered Dalga before dawn on Monday. Their arrival, they said, was followed by about 10 minutes of intense gunfire, followed by sporadic bursts of heavy shooting as government forces began house-to-house searches to arrest militants.
A total of 88 suspected militants were arrested out of a list of 312 wanted men, according to security officials in Minya. Two army helicopters were flying low over the town as forces sealed off all entrances and ordered residents to stay indoors, according to the activists and security officials.
The officials said around 11 people were injured by birdshot or treated for tear gas inhalation during the clashes.
However, many of the town's top Islamists appear to have fled just before the start of the operation, the security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Father Ioannis of the town's Coptic Orthodox church said many residents knew the operation was imminent from the night before and that Islamists used loudspeakers on mosque minarets to warn of an assault hours before it began.
"I live above a bakery and people waiting in line late last night were saying the army was coming in at dawn," he said. He suggested that residents farming land on the west side of the town may have seen troops and armor massing in the area, and the news spread.
"I am so happy and relieved they are here, anyway," he said.
Minya's security chief, Osamah Mutwali, said army troops and police were in complete control of the town and would remain there until law and order were fully restored.
Soon after the forces entered the town, hundreds of Morsi supporters tried to stage a protest march but they were quickly dispersed by the forces' use of tear gas, according to the activists and Islamist activist Mohammed El-Dalgawi.
The official Web site of the Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, said authorities rounded up at least 200 people at Dalga and that 125 others were injured. It claimed that helicopter gunships were randomly strafing homes in the town. El-Daglawi made a similar claim.
The Brotherhood's party said those arrested were being held at the town's main mosque.
Militants had seized Dalga, located on the edge of the Nile Valley bordering the western desert, by driving out police, part of the general collapse of security in Minya after Morsi's removal. Angry mobs torched and looted dozens of churches across the south, with Minya suffering the most.
When The Associated Press visited Dalga earlier this month, the church dating back to the 4th century was a blackened shell, with the remains of revered clerics strewn around the interior and "Egypt is Islamic" painted on its inside walls. The church is part of the ancient Virgin Mary and Saint Abraam monastery.
Armed militants were visible on many of Dalga's streets during the visit, and Morsi supporters held daily demonstrations outside the police station calling for the ousted president's reinstatement. Christians in Dalga say militants demanded money in exchange for their protection, a practice harkening back to a long abandoned tax called "jizyah" collected from non-Muslims.
The security officials said the 88 arrested Monday included members of the Gamaa Islamiya, a militant group that is a close ally of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. The Gamaa led the insurgency against the government in the 1990s and is blamed for a series of high-profile assassinations at the time along with the killing of wealthy Christians and western tourists.
Minya is a Gamaa stronghold and was a heartland of the 1990s insurgency. It is also home to the largest Christian community in any of Egypt's provinces — about 35 percent of its estimated 4.5 million residents. Christians account for about 10 percent of the population nationwide.
Associated Press reporter Mamdouh Thabet contributed to this story from Assiut, Egypt.