EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian troops fought al-Qaida-inspired militants Friday in the northern Sinai Peninsula, with Islamic extremists parading the corpse of one of two soldiers killed through the streets while it hung from a pole, a security official and witnesses said.
The militants fired celebratory gunfire in a village bordering the Gaza Strip around the displayed corpse, showing the challenge Egypt's government faces in putting down the insurgency that flourished after a July 3 military coup toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The Sinai clash flared after troops backed by armored vehicles swept through a village called el-Mahdiya. The operation targeted three of the most-wanted Ansar Jerusalem militants, including Shadi el-Manaei, a suspected mastermind of previous attacks, the official said.
The fighting killed two soldiers and wounded eight, the official said. Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali, a military spokesman, confirmed the killings in a Facebook post and said soldiers killed three "terrorists" in the operation.
Amid the fighting, militants seized one of the soldiers' corpses, hung it from the pole and drove it to a village called Nagaa Shabana in celebration, witnesses and the official said.
Ali said troops came under fire "from all directions" and that attack helicopters were sent to "deal with the targets," without elaborating.
The security official said that the militants later dumped the body of the soldier outside a mosque in a village called al-Mokatta, where the military retrieved it.
Ansar Jerusalem, like other Sinai-based al-Qaida-inspired groups, has been blamed for rising attacks against Egypt's military and police since a July 3 military coup toppled Morsi.
The group claimed responsibility for the suicide car bombing targeting Egypt's interior minister in September, an attack he escaped from unharmed. Scores of Egyptian police officers and soldiers have been killed in attacks by suspected Islamic militants since the coup.
Elsewhere in the country, authorities fired tear gas to disperse scattered protests by rock-throwing supporters of Morsi and opponents of the military-backed interim government.
In Cairo, the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and Suez in eastern Egypt, Morsi supporters marched after Friday prayers and chanted against the military under the slogan "Our 2012 Constitution" — referring to the suspended charter drafted under Morsi that has been extensively amended after his ouster. The interim government has set Jan. 14-15 for a public vote on the amended constitution.
The vote will be the first real test of Egypt's interim government, which hopes for a comfortable majority to enshrine its legitimacy. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood says it will boycott the vote and is calling on its followers to take to the streets during the two-day referendum.
In a statement Friday, the Brotherhood-led alliance said that the protests are the beginning of a week of protests. It called the upcoming vote on the constitution "a betrayal of the revolution's martyrs."
An Interior Ministry statement said 85 "rioters" arrested across the country Friday. A separate security official said that five officers and three soldiers were injured by birdshot during the clashes.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
In Suez, protester Abdel Rahman Saad said that demonstrators including women came under attack by military and police vehicles firing live ammunition and birdshot. It was not possible to verify his account. The Interior Ministry has denied using live ammunition to disperse protests.
Egypt's Health Ministry said eight people were injured across the country in the protests.