EL-ARISH, Egypt -- Egyptian security forces stormed four militant strongholds in the northern Sinai Peninsula early yesterday, fighting intense gunbattles and arresting 26 people in a search for suspects linked to recent bombings in the rugged desert region.
A total of 650 people have been arrested in Sinai since a force of 4,000 security personnel backed by armored vehicles launched the sweep Sunday through Sinai's desert plains and soaring mountains, a police official said.
Authorities were looking for suspects in a triple bombing that killed at least 64 people last month at Egypt's popular Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik on the southern tip of the Sinai. That attack followed by 10 months bombings at two other Sinai resorts near the Israeli border, Taba and Ras Shitan, that killed more than 30 people.
The sweep through Sinai for terror suspects came as Egypt and Israel sealed an agreement for Egypt to deploy 750 special police along the border with Gaza to help keep security after Israel's withdrawal from the strip, long an impoverished breeding ground for militants.
Israel is expected to pull back the last of its troops in early October, when the Egyptians would likely move in.
Yesterday's shootouts occurred at four locations near the Israeli border, where police stormed suspected militant hideouts, two police officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
One battle continued last evening at the top of al-Halal mountain, about 30 miles from the border, where a key suspect in the attacks -- Salem Khadr el-Shenoub -- was believed to be hiding with other militants, a security official said.
The 3,000-foot mountain is full of caves and valleys, and Shenoub boobytrapped entrances with explosives, the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. Police were using loudspeakers, calling on the militants to surrender.
So far, the new sweep has not reached the level of the wholesale roundup conducted after the Taba bombings. Two men charged in the attacks are on trial in Cairo but deny they were involved.
Nearly 3,000 people were detained in that roundup, and some have voiced concern the Sharm bombings may have been the work of disaffected Egyptians in retaliation for the heavy-handed response to the Taba attacks.