Mar 23, 1:32 PM EDT

Egypt says Sinai fighting kills 12 security forces



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CAIRO (AP) -- Militants killed 10 Egyptian soldiers and two policemen in the Sinai Peninsula on Thursday, underscoring the challenge security forces face in combatting an Islamic State affiliate in the restive area bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Army spokesman Tamer el-Rifai said the troops were carrying out a raid in which they killed 15 militants and arrested another seven. The three officers and seven enlisted men were killed by roadside bombs while in pursuit of the militants, he said.

The Interior Ministry said the two police were killed near a police station in the city of el-Arish, where much of the violence has been centered.

Egypt has been battling an insurgency in northern Sinai for years. The army says it is taking the fight deeper into the peninsula's sparsely populated desert and mountainous areas, targeting insurgent weapons depots and strongholds.

Troops destroyed a large amount of explosives in the raid and seized other weapons, ammunition and equipment, including roadside bombs, computers, solar panels, documents and mobile phones, al-Rifai said.

He released photos of the bodies of alleged extremists, wearing long tunics and baggy pants popular with jihadi fighters across the world. Weapons and equipment were also shown, as well as seven blindfolded men kneeling under guard by soldiers.

Both the army and the militants regularly claim battlefield victories that cannot be independently verified. Journalists are banned from the area.

Earlier this month, the Sinai-based IS branch claimed responsibility for the killing of Col. Yasser Mohammed el-Hadidi, a senior officer in el-Arish, with a roadside bomb. It said it killed two other officers the following day.

The group has also been behind a string of killings of Egyptian Christians in northern Sinai, which began in December and which has prompted much of the region's Christian Coptic minority to start leaving the area.

The long-running Sinai insurgency grew more virulent after the 2013 military overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, an elected Islamist president, and the launch of a widespread crackdown on dissent.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as army chief led Morsi's overthrow, praised Egypt's long-running fight against militants. In televised comments, the Egyptian leader said the country's security forces were flying the "banner of humanity, mercy, construction and development."

"We are the true protectors of righteousness and we sincerely condemn all cowardly terrorist acts anywhere in the world," he said during a ceremony honoring martyrs from the armed forces.

El-Sissi also ordered the doubling of the budget of the military association that looks after the families of fallen soldiers and provides physical therapy for disabled troops. He suggested that members of the armed forces have a "symbolic" part of their salaries deducted as a donation to the association in solidarity with the wounded.

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Associated Press writer Hamza Hendawi in Cairo contributed to this report.

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