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CAIRO – The Egyptian army is bulldozing homes and olive groves to build a buffer zone around the airport in its troubled North Sinai Province, where Islamic State group militants targeted the defense and interior ministers in December.
The operation will displace thousands, according to local residents who have been told they will be removed from at least a dozen hamlets around el-Arish airport. They say they are being moved to nearby cities where the government has promised them compensation.
The main airport in the region, the el-Arish facility has been closed to the public for more than three years, but is used when high ranking officials travel to North Sinai. The new fortifications underline how the army is digging in for a longer-term insurgency that shows no sign of abating, despite years of fighting in which hundreds of soldiers have been killed. They will stretch 5 kilometers (3 miles) around three sides and 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) to the north, Egypt's state news agency quoted North Sinai Gov. Abdel-Fatah Harhour as saying.
In what amounts to the latest escalation, Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar, who is in charge of police, were in el-Arish on an unannounced visit Dec. 19 when a missile struck their helicopter. Although they were not in the aircraft, the missile killed an officer and wounded two others.
President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi ordered the creation of the zone outside the airport walls two weeks ago, and it is unclear if it will eventually contain fences or other obstacles.
The buffer zone will destroy dozens of hamlets around the airport, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes for an unknown future, sparking some protest by residents despite the government promises of compensation.
Two residents who own olive groves in the area said the army told them to prepare to leave shortly after the helicopter attack, adding that they don't want to but felt powerless.
"We don't know where we will go. The airport has been closed for years. Why they don't move it to another area," said one, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by authorities. They both said officers also threatened to withhold compensation if they spoke to the media.
The airport periphery, especially the south, needed to be cleared in order to eliminate hiding spots that have been used in past attacks by IS militants, two military officials said Wednesday.
They use the farmlands "as a safe haven and a base to carry out attacks against forces," one said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Ashraf el-Hefny, a 51-year-old teacher and local community organizer, said hundreds of families are leaving their homes to an unknown future location. "The bulldozers have already started to raze the olive groves, rooting out every green leaf in the area," he said.
Another resident, Ayman el-Rotil, 48, said that "many" homes had been demolished quickly after bulldozers showed up, giving people barely enough time to gather their belongings.
Egyptian security forces have been battling Islamic militants in Sinai for years, but the violence spread and intensified in 2013 after the military overthrew Mohammed Morsi, a freely elected Islamist president whose one-year rule proved divisive. The region is now home to a powerful Islamic State group affiliate that has claimed a number of large attacks.
Even as heavy handed government policies ranging from displacements such as the ones around the airport to shoot-to-kill orders have not contained the insurgency, they have sometimes made residents prey to recruitment by them. Still, residents in el-Arish seem to be decidedly anti-insurgency and the government faced little popular backlash after the military demolished dwellings and displaced thousands in 2014 in a bid to destroy illegal smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
The attack on the airport, at a time when the city was highly secured for the ministers' visit, suggests the insurgents now possess intelligence and military capabilities. Such official visits are planned and carried out in secret, with no live media coverage. The government has heavily restricted journalists' access to northern Sinai since 2013.
In recent years, Egypt's military built another, more fortified buffer zone along the Gaza Strip border to prevent militants and weapons smugglers from using a vast tunnel network underneath.
El-Sissi, who as defense minister led Morsi's overthrow, has ordered security forces to restore "security and stability" in Sinai by the end of February, telling them to use "brute force" to crush the militants.
Those orders came after a Nov. 24 attack on a mosque in northern Sinai killed more than 300 worshippers — the deadliest such attack against civilians by Islamic extremists in Egypt's modern history. Among the dead were 27 children.
Residents said they could end up in cities like Ismailia, central el-Arish, or even Bir al-Abd — the main town where the deadly mosque attack occurred.