Security official says forces seize four men with explosives and weapons near El-Arish gas pipeline, the target of 5 attacks this year.
CAIRO - Egyptian security forces, pushing ahead with a crackdown on armed groups in lawless northern Sinai, on Tuesday seized four armed militants as they prepared to blow up a gas pipeline in the city of El-Arish, security sources said.
They said the military operation -- dubbed Operation Eagle -- began this week after a spike in attacks on security forces in Sinai since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising in February.
"Security guards captured four militants at the pipeline site. They possessed explosives and weapons," one security official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
The pipeline, target of much resentment from many Egyptians who say that the Mubarak government had been selling gas to Israel at below market rates, was attacked five times this year.
Egypt launched the military operation earlier this week after an assault on a police station in El-Arish on July 30 in which an army officer, two policemen and three civilians died.
Militants have formed alliances with armed Beduin tribesmen with strongholds in the rugged mountains of Sinai.
Sinai's population has a history of resentment towards the central government in Cairo, which has struggled to stamp its authority on the desert region bordering Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Sinai military operation hampered by peace treaty restrictions
Those efforts have been hampered partly by limits imposed by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel on the number of troops that could be deployed in Sinai.
An Egyptian army source said that Egypt, in coordination with Israel, deployed about 1,000 soldiers for the operation to root out an estimated 1,200-1,300 armed militants who had taken advantage of the security vacuum following Mubarak's downfall.
Egyptian security sources said the militants captured on Tuesday were the second group to be seized since the army operation began last week. On Monday, troops attacked militant hideouts, killing one gunman and arresting 11 militants, according to security sources.
An intelligence officer said around 100 armed men rode through the town in cars and on motorcycles before the attack on the police station in July, waving flags with Islamic slogans before launching the attack.
"The militants arrested today were linked to that Islamist militant group," the intelligence officer told Reuters without giving further details.
Some suspects are believed to be linked to al-Qaida while others were believed to be members of armed Palestinian groups from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, who had managed to enter Egypt through cross-border tunnels, he said.