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Doubts Emerge Over Egypt's Offensive In Sinai


When Egypt launched military operations earlier this week against Islamist extremists in the lawless Sinai Peninsula, they were described as the biggest in the area in decades. The move came after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in an ambush at their border post. State media outlets speaking for the government reported air strikes that killed more than 20 militants. They also reported ground troops moving into villages long off limits to the country's security forces.

But there's a problem. Much of this appears not to be true. NPR's Leila Fadel is in Northern Sinai. She visited those villages today and found no signs of destruction. And, Leila, tell us, what did you find in these villages?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, actually, we went to five villages today searching for signs of these air strikes, of people mourning the dead and we found nothing and actually found a lot of villagers laughing because they had heard a couple explosions, they saw some tanks come in and then leave again. But, really, there's no signs of this big operation that has been touted in state media outlets.

In one village, we walked into what you would consider a hangout spot for the young men of the village and they were just laughing because they said they were sitting there watching television and watching this big operation that was supposedly happening in their backyard and nothing was going on.

And the other thing is is that these are very small villages and everybody knows each other, so if there were mass casualties or mass deaths like this of militants, then somebody would know what family he came from, where the funeral tent was to go pay condolences, and none of that has happened, either.

CORNISH: What did residents say to you about their living conditions, their security or faith in Egypt's government?

FADEL: They say they've been neglected for decades. I mean, this is an area where the Bedouin have really not ever been treated as full citizens, so schooling is difficult to find. Most people don't have educations past middle school. There's no running water oftentimes, so you'll see - in one village, we saw everybody from the village would come to one ground well to fill water for the home because there is no running water in their homes. And it's just desert land with peach trees and apricot trees and not really any options for them.

And so many of them said, you know, we're looking for a government that will secure our area, but also provide us education, employment opportunities.

CORNISH: Leila, has the military commented yet?

FADEL: We've been trying to reach them and, so far, we've been unable to get comment. Very technically, the military leadership themselves didn't make any claims on the number of dead. They said that this operation, Operation Eagle, was a complete success and will continue to be.

But the state media outlets are seen as mouthpieces of the government and all of those outlets are saying 20 to 30 Islamist militants have been killed. Again, there are no - there's no evidence that this actually took place.

CORNISH: So what's the sense? Why would military officials make these claims?

FADEL: Well, I think there's a huge amount of pressure on the Egyptian government to show, domestically and internationally, that they can control the Sinai. There's been a lot of pressure from the United States, from Israel, to take control of this very sensitive border area that has had serious attacks repeatedly over the last 18 months. It's always been somewhat of a security vacuum, but that's only grown since Hosni Mubarak's ouster 18 months ago.

CORNISH: NPR's Leila Fadel in Northern Sinai, thank you so much for talking with us.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.