CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt on Friday announced a major security operation involving the military and police forces in areas including the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, the epicenter of an Islamic insurgency spearheaded by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.
The operation, announced in a televised statement by army spokesman Col. Tamer el-Rifaai, began early Friday and covers central Sinai as well as areas in Egypt's Nile Delta and Western Desert. El-Rifaai said the operation is targeting "terrorist and criminal elements and organizations."
The announcement comes amid local media reports of heightened alert levels in north Sinai hospitals and in other neighboring provinces in anticipation of casualties from the operation.
It also comes ahead of the presidential election in March in which President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is running for a second four-year term with no serious contenders. El-Sissi was elected in 2014 in a landslide with promises of restoring security.
Egypt has been struggling to contain an Islamic insurgency in the turbulent Sinai region for years. Militant attacks have increased dramatically in the country since the military's 2013 ouster of elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against his divisive one-year rule. The violence has been concentrated in northern Sinai Peninsula but has also spread to the mainland.
In November, el-Sissi gave security forces a three-month deadline to restore stability to northern Sinai. His instructions followed the killing of 311 worshippers in a terrorist attack on a mosque in the turbulent region, the deadliest in Egypt's modern history.
Later, militants fired a projectile at el-Arish airport and struck an Apache helicopter that was part of the entourage of Egypt's defense and interior ministers who were in the city on an unannounced visit on Dec. 19. Neither minister was in the aircraft when the attack took place but the missile killed an officer and wounded two others. Egypt is currently building a buffer zone around the airport.
Egypt is also facing a growing number of attacks by militants in its Western Desert along the porous border with Libya that has been the source of serious concern to authorities who contend Islamic militants and smugglers use it as their route into the country.
The country has been under a state of emergency after suicide bombings struck two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday last year in an attack that was claimed by the Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State group.