KERDASA, Egypt — Egyptian security forces on Thursday stormed Kerdasa – a purported stronghold for ousted President Mohammed Morsi – exchanged fire with residents in an hours-long street battle and arrested dozens of suspected militants in the latest government crackdown on cities suspected of serving as redoubts for armed Islamists.
A police general, Nabil Farag, died in the violence, the first time security forces had returned to Kerdasa, an industrial town south of Cairo, since Aug. 14, when 11 police officers died in clashes with Islamists who were protesting the clearing in Cairo of a pro-Morsi sit-in. The Cairo action left as many as 1,100 pro-Morsi demonstrators dead in what became the initial step of a fierce crackdown.
There have been similar clashes in other Egyptian cities as communities become quasi-battlefields branded as either pro- or anti-government. The government has launched similar attacks in the Sinai, and earlier this week in the southern city of Delga security forces arrested dozens on charges that they’d torched churches or supported terrorists.
The government said 70 people were arrested Thursday, but interviews with officials at the scene suggested that the total might be much higher.
It wasn’t always clear why some of those who were arrested had been targeted. McClatchy reporters watched security forces detain one man; members of the force couldn’t agree on the man’s crime.
The man, who sported a beard often favored by Islamists, was arrested at a makeshift checkpoint. The two police officers and one soldier at the scene each offered a different reason.
“We found a machine gun with him,” said a police officer who was sitting next to the man in the police cruiser. A second officer farther away said the man was suspected of killing police officers last month. The soldier said the man was being held because “we found empty bullet shells in his pocket while inspecting him.”
“He was passing through the checkpoint trying to escape,” added the soldier, who like the two police officers refused to give his name.
In the vehicle, the police officer next to the arrested man poked him so that he’d answer a reporter. “I don’t have any guns and this is my motorcycle,” he murmured, looking depressed.
Residents said they’d been expecting security forces to raid the town after the Aug. 14 violence. Streets were empty Thursday as residents huddled inside. Many said they were glad the police had returned.
“Let the police and military come back. That will bring tourism, as well,” said Saher Hamdy, 43, who owns a shop that sells embroidery, the town’s claim to fame. His shop was closed, but he watched from the doorway.
A senior military official at the scene, Mohamed Elwan, said three of those arrested were accused of participating in the killing of police officers last month. He said more forces were expected to arrive Thursday night to arrest additional people.
A second general, Islam Ammar, said government forces had arrested 118 people and accused them of involvement in the burning of a police station in the town during the Aug. 14 upheaval.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @aminaismail, @nancyayoussef