EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian authorities on Tuesday ordered residents living along the country's eastern border with the Gaza Strip to evacuate so they can demolish their homes and set up a buffer zone to stop weapons and militant trafficking between Egypt and the Palestinian territory, officials said.
The measure comes four days after militants attacked an army post, killing at least 31 soldiers in the restive area in the northeastern corner of the Sinai Peninsula. After the attack, Egypt declared a state of emergency and dawn-to-dusk curfew there. Authorities also indefinitely closed the Gaza crossing, the only non-Israeli passage for the crowded strip with the world.
The buffer zone, which will include water-filled trenches to thwart tunnel diggers, will be 500 meters (yards) wide and extended along the 13 kilometer (9 mile) border.
Army officers spoke to the affected residents in person and initially gave them a 48-hour ultimatum to leave, but put that on hold after they protested, officials said. Residents groups are now negotiating with local officials to see if they can extend the deadline.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
The Egyptian army has waged a broad offensive in northern Sinai against Islamic militants who have turned several areas into strongholds over the past three years, destroying many of the sprawling smuggling tunnels that connected the area with Gaza.
Egyptian media meanwhile has accused Gaza's Hamas rulers for meddling in Egypt's affairs, with some suggesting that the Islamic militant group is supporting fighters inside Egypt since the military overthrew Egypt's elected President, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, last year.
Hamas officials meanwhile deny any interference and criticize Egypt for imposing stricter border crossing rules since then.
Since Morsi's ouster, militant attacks against security forces in northern Sinai have escalated, something Egyptian authorities blame on Morsi and his allies. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group, which has been branded as a terrorist organization, denied links to violence. Another al-Qaida-inspired group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks.
No one claimed responsibility for Friday's attack on the army post.