CAIRO (AP) — Security forces backed by armored vehicles and helicopters on Monday stormed a town south of Cairo that had been held for over two months by militants loyal to the ousted Islamist president, swiftly taking control despite some resistance from gunmen.
Local activists Adel Shafiq and Ezzat Ibrahim said a joint force of army and police rolled into the town of Dalga, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of the Egyptian capital, before dawn on Monday. They said there were about 10 minutes of intense gunfire, followed by sporadic shots as government forces began house-to-house searches to arrest militants.
A total of 88 suspected militants were arrested out of a list of 312 who were wanted, according to security officials in Minya, the province in which Dalga is located.
Two army helicopters were flying low over the town, which has a 120,000 population of which an estimated 20,000 are minority Christians. Forces sealed off all entrances to the town and ordered residents to stay indoors, according to the activists.
Minya's security chief, Osamah Mutwali, said army troops and police were in complete control of the town and would remain there until law and order were fully restored.
Militants drove police out of Dalga, located on the edge of the Nile Valley bordering the western desert, during a security vacuum in Minya following the July 3 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in a popularly backed coup.
After Morsi's overthrow and a subsequent deadly crackdown on his followers, angry mobs torched and looted dozens of churches across the south. In Dalga, when The Associated Press visited earlier this month, a church dating back to the 4th century was a blackened shell, with the remains of revered clerics strewn around the interior and "Egypt is Islamic" painted on its inside walls.
Armed militants were visible on many of its streets, and Morsi supporters held daily demonstrations outside the police station calling for the ousted president's reinstatement. Christians in Dalga say militants demanded money in exchange for their protection, a practice harkening back to a long abandoned tax called "jizyah" collected from non-Muslims.
The security officials said the 88 arrested Monday included members of the Gamaa Islamiyah, a militant group that is a close ally of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. The Gamaa led the insurgency against the government in the 1990s and is blamed for a series of high-profile assassinations at the time along with the killing of wealthy Christians and western tourists.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Minya is a stronghold of the Gamaa and was a heartland of the 1990s insurgency. It is also home to the largest Christian community in any of Egypt's provinces, making up about 35 percent of its estimated 4.5 million residents. Christians account for about 10 percent of the population nationwide.