CAIRO – Heavily armed Egyptian forces swooped down Wednesday on a suspected militant arms cache and bomb factory, triggering a firefight that left two high-ranking military officers dead, officials and state media said.
At least five insurgents were also killed in the hours-long shootout north of Cairo and four others were arrested, the Interior Ministry said. Officials said the hideout belonged to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, an armed Islamist group that has carried out a number of sophisticated attacks in recent months.
The slain military men were identified by the army's chief spokesman, Col. Ahmed Ali, as a brigadier general and a colonel who were at the scene of the operation because they were explosives experts.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has its roots in the restive Sinai peninsula, where it has been battling Egyptian troops. However, it has also demonstrated a growing ability to carry out attacks in heartland Egyptian cities, including the capital, Cairo.
Islamist militants have declared war on Egypt's military-backed government in the eight months since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the army. The government has consistently blamed rising violence on the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement with which Morsi is affiliated.
But Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for virtually all major strikes, including an unsuccessful attempt six months ago to assassinate the interior minister, a bombing at a police headquarters in Cairo in January, the shooting down of a military helicopter in the Sinai, and an attack last month on a tourist bus near the Israeli frontier.
Wednesday's confrontation, and the rare deaths of two senior officers in a military raid, is likely to spur an even harsher crackdown by the interim government, which has enacted a series of repressive measures during its months in power.
Street protests have in effect been outlawed, and dozens of secular activists, journalists and academics have been arrested and prosecuted. Jail conditions are reported to be dire, and human rights groups say detainee abuse is rampant.