BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- The Egyptian air force conducted air strikes in recent days in the northern Sinai Peninsula that left at least 18 suspected militants killed, according to the Egyptian army, days after Human Rights Watch accused Egyptian forces of committing possible extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances in the region under the guise of counterterrorism operations.
An Egyptian army spokesperson said in a statement Saturday evening that airstrikes launched in al-Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid had targeted homes and vehicles allegedly used by "18 extremely dangerous takfiris (extremists)."
The spokesman neither specified the dates on which the airstrikes were carried out nor the identity or affiliation of those killed in northern Sinai, where the Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State, known as the Sinai Province, is operating.
“The air force is continuing to support law-enforcement forces in northern Sinai to target dens and vehicles of terrorist operatives, as well as carrying out aerial reconnaissance,” the statement said.
of the airstrikes was released along with the statement, which was posted on Facebook.
Fighting between the Egyptian government and the Sinai Province has escalated since Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi took power from Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, which has since left hundreds killed -- including civilians, security forces, and alleged militants.
The Egyptian president came under attack following his violent suppression of Muslim Brotherhood members following his rise to power, which al-Sisi has argued is necessary to deter future attacks in the Sinai and across Egypt.
The alleged killing of the 18 militants came after Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report
on Thursday, saying that Egyptian internal security forces “may have extrajudicially executed at least four and perhaps as many as 10 men,” during a deadly raid on Jan. 13.
Egyptian authorities said at the time that the men were targeting for participating in killings and other attacks on security forces, and named six of the slain men, but did not identify the other four.
Investigations conducted by HRW indicated that Egyptian security forces “may have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared the men and then staged a counterterrorism raid to cover up the killings.”
HRW cited an edited video released by Egyptian authorities purporting to show the raid, which experts said was proof the incident had been staged.
Relatives of three of the dead men and a lawyer who is representing two of the families all told HRW that Egyptian security forces had arrested the men without warrants in October and November 2016, months before the alleged January raid took place.
Meanwhile, a representative of a local human rights organization reportedly said
in the wake of the raid that the names of the six slain men had appeared on a list of 650 people allegedly being held without charge in northern Sinai.
Relatives also told HRW that they felt too intimidated by security forces to complain or pursue legal redress, had been contacted by Interior Ministry officials to drop their efforts, and that in February and March, police arrested a number of the slain men’s relatives to pressure their families to drop the issue.
“These apparent extrajudicial killings reveal total impunity for Egypt’s security forces in the Sinai Peninsula under President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s counterterrorism policies,” the report quoted Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, as saying.
“Prosecutors need to conduct a full and transparent investigation to get to the bottom of what appear to be grave abuses.”
HRW said the killings appeared to fit a pattern of abuses against Egyptian civilians by both military and internal security forces who are fighting the Islamic State. HRW has also previously reported that the Egyptian government does not acknowledge civilian deaths in the Sinai.
The group meanwhile highlighted that journalists and human rights groups are rarely able to investigate frequent and credible reports of abuse because the government denies them access to the region
The January killings sparked rare protests
in al-Arish against the Egyptian Interior Ministry during some of the men’s funerals.
Local leaders have have since demanded
the immediate release of anyone held without charge, the resignation of North Sinai’s representatives in parliament, holding to account those responsible for the killings, and called for the creation
of a government fact-finding committee to investigate the incident.