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Egyptian helicopters fire rockets at militants in Sinai, killing at least 8

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EL-ARISH, Egypt - Egyptian helicopter gunships fired rockets early Tuesday at militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula, killing at least eight and injuring 15 others in an ongoing campaign to put down Islamic radicals who have escalated attacks in the largely lawless region, Egypt's official news agency said.

Egyptian troops have stepped up their crackdown on militants in the peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel, arresting suspects and destroying tunnels along the Gaza border used for smuggling weapons and people. Attacks by Islamic militants surged in Sinai after the toppling of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi in a July 3 coup.

Security officials said military helicopters targeted multiple locations along the borders with Gaza and in northern Sinai. The state news agency MENA said the strikes hit hideouts where militants were meeting in two villages, Touma and Moqataa, along with a car carrying suspects.

At least eight were killed and 15 wounded, MENA reported.

But a military official put the death toll at 13, saying the strikes also hit hideouts and vehicles in two other villages, Joura and Mahdiya.

One helicopter fired on a moving car, apparently killing the occupants, said another official. Two weapons caches were destroyed and three suspects running from airstrikes were arrested at a nearby checkpoint, he said.

Forces cordoned off the area to prevent militants from escaping as troops combed the villages, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

Three houses were destroyed and part of a nearby mosque was damaged, said a witness who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal.

Ali Hassan Khalaf, who lives just outside Moqataa, said he saw helicopters flying over targeted areas a day earlier, taking aerial images. He said the main family in the village has given militants a safe haven.

The increase in Egyptian counterinsurgency operations in the Sinai started after the overthrow of Morsi, whom the military accused of turning a blind eye to militant activity.

On Aug. 10, military helicopters fired three missiles targeting a meeting by suspected militants in the town of Sheikh Zuweyid, killing 12.

Army commandos late Monday arrested two members of an al-Qaida-inspired group that had fired rockets at Israel, another security official said. Commandos stormed two houses in Joura, near Sheikh Zuweyid, and detained the two members of the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, he said.

The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk with the media.

The two members of the group are also believed to have been involved in the killing of 25 police recruits last month near the border in one of the worst recent attacks against Egyptian security forces. The mastermind of the attack was arrested last week, and the two suspects detained Monday are accused of setting up and firing the rockets used in the attacks, the official said.

Security forces still have a long list of militants they are trying to arrest. Most are thought to be in hiding at the border area with Gaza and Israel and in the central Sinai mountains.

_____

Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.

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