Cairo - Security forces backed by armoured 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 300km 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.
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.
Militants drove police out of Dalga, located on the edge of
the Nile Valley bordering the western desert, during a security vacuum in
southern Egypt's Minya province following the 3 July 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.
Security officials in Minya said several militants have been
arrested in Dalga on Monday, including 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% of the population