As Sinai Conflict Deadline Approaches, Militant Deaths Mount

(Bloomberg) -- Egypt’s military said it killed almost 30 militants in Sinai over the past few days, in a full-throttle burst as a presidential deadline to pacify the restive peninsula approached.

Security forces killed 12 militants in a firefight, the military spokesman said on his official Facebook page Monday, after killing 16 others a day earlier in the rugged territory that’s become the base for the Islamic State’s local affiliate in Egypt. The offensive, announced on Friday, comes ahead of next month’s president elections, in which Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is expected to easily secure a second term. About 100 other suspected militants have been arrested and weapons caches destroyed, the army said.

El-Sisi has been struggling to contain a militant threat despite a crackdown on Islamists that began even before his election in 2014. In November, he gave his new armed forces chief of staff three months to restore security after an attack on a north Sinai mosque that left more than 300 dead.

In a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated Washington’s support for Egyptian efforts to combat terrorism. But he also raised the issue of democratic freedoms after challengers to El-Sisi were either barred from contesting or ruled themselves out of the March ballot.

Crisis Talks

“We have always advocated for free and fair elections, transparent elections, not just for Egypt but in any country,” Tillerson said during a press conference with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

The top U.S. diplomat is set to meet El-Sisi later in the day for discussions likely to focus on the ballot as well as the region’s numerous crises, including conflict in Syria and Yemen and tensions between leading Gulf energy producers.

El-Sisi, a former army chief and defense minister, relied heavily on his security credentials to win his first election. The vote scheduled for late March has been criticized by detractors as little more than a rubber stamp after his most viable challengers were either disqualified from the race or withdrew. El-Sisi’s sole rival -- a little-known lawmaker who supported the president’s re-election bid -- is seen by critics as a fig leaf meant to provide a veneer of democracy to the process.

Analysts have said that El-Sisi and his backers are being emboldened in the run-up to the elections since they’re finding little in the way of objections from President Donald Trump.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.