CAIRO – Egyptian security forces raided a warehouse suspected of being a militants' bomb factory on Cairo's outskirts, sparking an hourslong battle Wednesday with gunmen that left two military officers and six militants dead, the Interior Ministry said.
The assault was one of the first known raids in the Nile Delta against a suspected hideout and factory of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the main militant group that has been waging an insurgency that began in the Sinai but has spread in past months to the Delta and into the capital, Cairo. The hideout highlighted the group's increasing encroachment on the capital.
"It is the first time to bust a terrorist cell of this size" in the Delta area, said Hani Abdel-Latif, the police spokesman.
The Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Champions of Jerusalem, has carried out several dramatic attacks in the capital, including a car bombing that struck Cairo's main security headquarters and a failed assassination attempt on the interior minister, using a suicide bomber.
The raid took place before dawn Wednesday. Acting on a tip, a joint force of police, military and special forces attacked the group taking cover in a timber workshop in Arab Sharkas village in Qalioubiya province, neighboring Cairo to the north.
Abdel-Latif told The Associated Press that the area is part of a desert area stretching to the Suez Canal city of Ismailia and beyond to Sinai. He said militants have used the stretch as an approach to launch operations in and around Cairo.
"The security crackdown on the ground in Sinai has pushed (the militants) to move to these areas in the Delta through back roads," Abdel-Latif said.
In the eight months since the military removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the military and police have been waging a campaign against the militants in Sinai, going after their hideouts in the region along the border with Gaza and Israel, closing smuggling tunnels and arrested or killing hundreds of suspected militants.
But militants have increasingly taken their attacks to the capital, and closer in the cities of the Delta, targeting troops and installations.
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.
During the raid early Wednesday, militants opened fire on security forces and set off 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 eight suspected militants, Abdel-Latif said.
He said authorities seized about 50 kilograms of explosives, as well as weapons, ammunition, explosive belts and prepared bombs.
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. The station, citing residents, said the battle began around 2 a.m. and ended five hours later.
A relative of the owner of the workshop told the station the suspected militants have been rented the workshop two months ago.
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.
In the face of a security crackdown that has detained the Brotherhood's leadership and thousands of its supporters, protests by Morsi supporters demanding his reinstatement have waned. But they have not ended, with rallies in universities that often turn into clashes with security forces.
A Brotherhood-led coalition had called for a new wave of protests for the rest of the month. Security forces responded with heavy deployments in Cairo and other major cities, especially around security installations.
On Wednesday, protests took place in and outside a number of universities in Cairo and other cities.
In Beni Suef, south of Cairo, a 15-year old was killed and three people were injured in clashes outside the university in the city, according to Hamdi Mostafa, the head of the local hospital. Brotherhood supporters and police also clashed at train tracks, apparently after the protesters tried to disrupt traffic, police said. A police statement said the force fired tear gas to disperse the crowd and arrested 12.
Several hundred students protested at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and in the university's branch in the southern city of Assiut. In both places, police fired tear gas to prevent the students from moving out of the campuses into the streets.
Hundreds of students from Cairo University pushed their way out of the campus and clashed with the security forces deployed outside, littering a main street in central Cairo with rocks.
"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."