Egyptian Army soldiers patrol in an armored vehicle backed by a helicopter gunship during a sweep through villages in in Sheikh Zuweyid, northern Sinai, Egypt, Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Egypt's government has built up security forces in northern Sinai as part of an effort to secure the release of six policemen and a border guard kidnapped last week by suspected militants. (AP Photo) Image Credit: AP

Cairo One militant was killed and three others were arrested in a military raid to liberate the seven kidnapped soldiers in the Egypt’s North Sinai governorate on Tuesday, a security official told Nile News, a state-owned television channel.

“During an air raid launched by the Egyptian army in southern Rafah in North Sinai, the security troops were surprised by heavy gunfire at Al Barth area and exchanged fire with the militants,” the security source said.

Afterwards, the troops seized eight vehicles of the militants, where they found one body. Three people were arrested, while the rest ran away, according to the source.

Earlier on Tuesday eight wanted criminal suspects have been arrested during the inspection and combing operations in the area between Rafah, Arish and Shaikh Zuweid in North Sinai, according to an official statement.

Army, police and intelligence services have begun searching a number of desert villages in the Sinai Peninsula in their hunt for the seven abducted soldiers, witnesses told Gulf News.

Three warplanes hovered over the coastal city as soldiers raided homes and buildings used by Jihadists, witnesses said.

“We don’t expect them to be found in Al Qouraey [one of the targeted villages, located 20km south of Al Arish] because it is in an open location,” a witness, who claimed to be a member of the Sawarka tribe, added.

The witness also said he had seen helicopters patrolling south and southwest of Rafah. According to the witness, it is the first time since the January 25 Revolution that police and intelligence operations were launched in the remote desert areas of North Sinai.

“The police and intelligence officers are forming checkpoints with the army,” the witness said.

North Sinai governor Abdul Fattah Harhour, meanwhile, summoned Bedouin leaders from all tribes in the district for an emergency meeting to discuss their cooperation with the military campaign to free the hostages.

Military sources said that the armed forces have intensified deployment of troops in Sinai on Tuesday in the areas of Rafah and Shaikh Zuweid City, aiming to encircle the kidnappers and minimise their chances of escaping with the hostages.

Main roads were also blocked as mobile and static police checkpoints increased.

A military source said that elements from the Second and Third Army, regional divisions of the Egyptian armed forces responsible for the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal, would be involved in the operation.

However, he denied that the operation is underway as reported, without mentioning when it will begin.

“A military job cannot be hasty or impulsive. It comes after coordination between military and political leaders, after all means of peaceful negotiations are exhausted,” he said.

“The fact that troops are moving does not mean the operation has started.”

The source also said that the police have sent forces specialised in hostage liberation to Sinai to support the troops.

— The writer is a journalist based in Cairo