CAIRO (AP) — The United States and Egypt on Monday reaffirmed their commitment to battle Islamic militants in the Middle East as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held talks with Egyptian officials in Cairo at the start of his week-long trip to the region.
Tillerson and his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, cited productive discussions on regional security and the struggle against the Islamic State group, whose Egyptian affiliate, based in the Sinai Peninsula, has struck military and civilian targets across the Arab world's most populous country.
At a joint news conference with Shoukry, Tillerson said Egypt was an important part of the anti-IS coalition and that Washington was "committed to strengthening this partnership in the years to come."
"We agreed that we would continue our close cooperation on counterterrorism measures, including our joint commitment to the defeat of IS," Tillerson said.
"We highly value this relationship and we thank the United States for what it presents to Egypt in terms of support, which benefits both countries," Shoukry said, adding that Cairo hoped to further boost cooperation.
The visit comes as Egypt is undertaking a major military operation in volatile Sinai, where Islamic extremists have been leading an insurgency for years, and in remote areas of the mainland where militants have attacked security forces and civilians.
Attacks picked up after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi overthrew his elected but divisive Islamist predecessor, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013. And militants have become more brazen of late. In November they massacred 311 people at a north Sinai mosque, and in December they tried to kill the defense and interior ministers with a missile attack during an unannounced visit to the area.
North Sinai has long been under emergency law, with a nighttime curfew in place in some hot spots, but alert levels have been heightened in recent days due to the new offensive, called Sinai 2018. Hospitals in North Sinai and in other neighboring provinces have cancelled leave for doctors in anticipation of casualties, while many local gas stations and shops were ordered shut.
The operation, announced in a televised statement by army spokesman Col. Tamer el-Rifai, began early Friday and covers north and central Sinai as well as the Nile Delta and Western Desert and targets "terrorist and criminal elements and organizations." It is unclear how long it will last.
In its latest update, Egypt's military said Monday it had killed a dozen militants in firefights and arrested 92 people, bringing the total militant body count to 28, based on earlier statements. It says it has destroyed dozens of targets, including vehicles, weapons caches, hideouts, communications centers and illegal opium fields in the sweep.
North Sinai is closed off for non-residents and journalists, and the army's casualty figures could not be independently confirmed. Telephone connections to the area, both mobile and landlines, are often shut down as well. The army has not mentioned any killed or wounded on its own side.
The campaign also comes ahead of March elections in which el-Sissi faces no serious competitors, after authorities sidelined his opponents using a variety of charges and disqualifications, leaving only a little-known supporter to run against him. El-Sissi, who held talks with Tillerson later in the day, says he is the only one who can bring stability to the country. Militant attacks, however, have surged under his leadership.
A video purportedly by Egypt's IS branch has called on fighters to stage attacks during the presidential election, defiantly mentioning the offensive and warning Egyptians to stay away from polling centers. Voting will take place over three days — March 26, 27 and 28 — in what critics say is an attempt to increase participation by a disinterested public.
Washington, which gives Egypt some $1.3 billion in annual military assistance and hundreds of millions more in civilian aid, withheld some $100 million of the funding last summer, ostensibly over new Egyptian legislation that blocks much foreign funding of non-governmental organizations, especially those involved in human rights research.
Asked about his country's view of the upcoming vote, Tillerson said the U.S. always advocates for free and fair elections and would continue to do so. He did not specifically mention el-Sissi's virtually uncontested election, or the aid being withheld. El-Sissi also faces criticism for quashing all dissent in the country, in what is the harshest crackdown in Egypt's modern history.
"We have always advocated for free and fair elections, transparent elections, not just for Egypt but any country," Tillerson said.
In the evening, el-Sissi's office said he "underscored the robust strategic relations between Egypt and the U.S." when he met with Tillerson, urging further American engagement in the country.
"The President noted that Egypt looks forward to forging closer economic cooperation with the U.S. and to increasing American investments in Egypt," it said in a statement.
Tillerson then left Cairo, travelling on to Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where he will meet local officials as well as Saudi, Emirati, Iraqi and Syrian delegations.
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