CAIRO (AP) — A raid by Egyptian police, military and special forces on a suspected bomb factory outside of Cairo turned into an hourslong gun battle with insurgents who detonated car bombs in clashes that killed two military officers and five militants, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday.
The ministry, which is in charge of police, said an investigation showed that the al-Qaida-inspired militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Champions of Jerusalem, used the timber workshop in Arab Sharkas village in Qalioubiya province to build and store bombs.
During the raid early Wednesday, militants opened fire on security forces and set off the car bombs, sparking a gun battle that lasted several hours, the ministry said.
The fighting killed a brigadier general and a colonel, both explosive experts, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said in a post on his Facebook page. Authorities arrested four suspected militants, the ministry said.
Private television station CBC aired footage from the area showing security officials defusing an explosive belt. The workshop could be seen from afar, and brick and metal debris were strewn on the ground.
In the eight months since the military removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, violence targeting police officers and soldiers has increased, moving from the restive northern Sinai Peninsula closer to the capital.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, based in Sinai, has claimed responsibility for most of the major attacks in and near Cairo. The most recent attack came Saturday when gunmen stormed a military police checkpoint, killing six soldiers, in an area not far from the workshop raided Wednesday.
Egypt's military-backed interim government has accused the Muslim Brotherhood — which rose to power following the 2011 ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak — of orchestrating much of the violence and has declared it a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, denies the charges, insisting it is pursuing peaceful means to reinstate him.
The group has continued to hold rallies against the government since Morsi's ouster, despite a security crackdown that has detained the group's leadership and thousands of its supporters. That has caused the protests to wane, though Islamist supporters continue their demonstrations, holding rallies in universities and often clashing with security forces.
On Wednesday, several hundreds of students at Al-Azhar University, an Islamist university in Cairo, and its branch in the southern Assiut province rallied. In both places, police fired tear gas to prevent the students from taking to the streets. The protest came after a Brotherhood-led coalition called for demonstrations for the rest of March.
"We have martyrs and detainees. We must bring them retribution and free the detainees. We must bring down this military coup," said Khadiga el-Kholy, a 20-year-old Cairo University student. "All these violations are because of military rule. We will not accept it."
Also Wednesday, Egypt's Grand Mufti, the country's top Islamic jurist, ratified a court ruling last month sentencing 26 people to death on charges of forming a terrorist group to launch attacks on the vital Suez Canal. The mufti ratification is a requirement in Egypt when death sentences are involved. A 27th defendant received a 15-year sentence, lawyer Mohammed Abdel-Aziz said.
The 26 were sentenced in absentia. Five who had turned themselves in will be automatically retried, as will the rest once they are detained.
The case goes back to 2010 when the group was accused of plotting to attack the canal, but it was put on hold, Abdel-Aziz said. The case was revived in 2013, amid a rising wave of violent attacks in the country, and the verdict was made last month.