CAIRO – Egyptian security forces backed by helicopters raided a town on the outskirts of Cairo known to be an Islamist stronghold on Thursday, exchanging fire with suspected militants who killed a senior police officer.
The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said Gen. Nabil Farrag, an aide to the security chief of Cairo's twin city of Giza, was shot dead when militants opened fire on security forces approaching the town of Kerdasa to drive off suspected Islamic militants. Egypt's official news agency blamed "terrorists and criminal elements" for his death.
A photographer from The Associated Press captured the dramatic scene as security forces carried Farrag's limp body toward an armored personnel carrier.
Police arrested 32 suspects in house-to-house raids in Kerdasa, according to a security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. The interior ministry said Farrag was killed by gunmen firing from the rooftops of several schools and mosques they had taken over.
Thursday's assault on Kerdasa is the second major operation by the army and police against a militant stronghold. On Sunday, a large police and army contingent retook the town of Dalga south of Cairo, ending two months of Islamists' rule there.
The quick succession of the two major raids underline the resolve of the military-backed government to restore law and order throughout a country roiled by unrest and violence since the 2011 ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
In a sign security may finally be showing some improvement, state television on Thursday said the nighttime curfew slapped on the country since mid-August will be reduced by one hour effective Saturday to start at midnight and be lifted at 5 a.m. The curfew on Friday will continue to start at 7 p.m. but will also end at 5 a.m.
Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Hani Abdel-Latif said police now planned to besiege Kerdasa along with the army, which would then deploy special forces to round up the armed men.
"There will be no retreat until it is cleansed of all terrorist and criminal hideouts," he said in a statement.
Armored vehicles have been stationed at town entrances, blocking off the main roads. State TV said security forces using loudspeakers urged residents to stay indoors to avoid the crossfire.
Kerdasa witnessed a brutal assault on security forces last month when heavily armed suspected supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi killed 15 police officers and mutilated their bodies. The attack appeared to be in retaliation for a violent crackdown on pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo that left hundreds of people were killed. That operation sparked days of unrest and riots that left more than 1,000 dead.
Local media reported at the time that Morsi supporters drove police out of Kerdasa and blocked the main roads with sand bags. Residents and authorities listed the names of more than 140 men wanted for suspected involvement in the policemen's killings. Several were members of Egypt's hard-line group Gamaa Islamiya — which had waged an armed insurgency in the 1990s. The group later renounced violence and was a strong Morsi ally before and during his one-year presidency.
The August assault on the police station evoked the decades-old conflict between Egypt's police and Islamists.