CAIRO, Egypt -- Egyptian security forces trying to eliminate an Islamic extremist cell fought street battles in a Muslim fundamentalist stronghold south of Cairo yesterday, leaving two policemen and at least 10 civilians dead, security sources said.
The latest bloodshed was part of an intensifying succession of clashes between Egypt's secular leaders and Muslim militants who seek to topple President Hosni Mubarak's government and replace it with a purist Islamic state.
It also is part of an increasing pattern of Islamic attacks that target Westerners for supporting the Middle East's non-Islamic governments.
On Tuesday, for example, a crude bomb blew up in downtown Cairo, damaging five empty tour buses outside the Egyptian Museum. The blast caused no casualties, but the shadowy anti-government Islamic Group, known in Arabic as the Gamaa Islamiya, claimed responsibility in a statement delivered to Western news agencies. It said a wing of the group, called "Just Retribution," carried out the attack.
Yesterday, hundreds of Egyptian security forces backed by armored personnel carriers moved into the Islamic Group stronghold of Assiut to make arrests in the city, which is 200 miles south of the capital.
Reports from Assiut said Egyptian police stormed buildings and exchanged gunfire with militants in the streets for as long as nine hours, launching their assault before dawn yesterday.
A security source in Cairo said two police officers and 10 men identified as militants were killed. At least 25 accused Muslim extremists were arrested, and 11 civilians and 10 policemen were wounded.
Government-Gamaa clashes have increased in recent weeks, particularly after U.S. officials suggested there is a possible link between the Islamic Group and the Feb. 26 explosion at the World Trade Center in New York.
The Egyptian government already had begun cracking down on the Gamaa to try to assert order in this nation of 56 million people. The attacks targeting Westerners have been especially damaging to Egypt's foreign exchange-sensitive economy because tourism is plummeting.
Five-star hotels are well below occupancy. Groups have canceled everything from conferences to cruises along the Nile as a result of the spiraling violence.
Analysts have noted a dramatic increase in car bombs, drive-by shootings and other attacks blamed on Muslim radicals in both Egypt and the Israeli-occupied territories in recent months.
Some of the Arab Islamic movements are based in Peshawar, Pakistan. It still is unclear whether there also is a connection between the heightened Middle Eastern clashes and a series of explosions that have rocked Indian cities, leaving more than 300 people dead in India in a week. Authorities in New Delhi have suggested that neighboring Pakistan, a longtime Muslim enemy of the largely Hindu Indian state, is to blame for the explosions.
In yesterday's attack in Calcutta, a bomb killed more than 60 people, agency reports said.
Also unclear is the tie between the Egyptian attacks and the New York trade center bombing.
Two of the prime suspects arrested, for example, are Islamic Palestinians, not Egyptians.
Investigators, however, have said they sometimes worshiped in a New Jersey storefront mosque where the Islamic Group's spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, sometimes preached.
Investigators also have reported ties between the Palestinian suspects and an Egyptian jailed in connection with the 1991 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the U.S.-born radical who advocated the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel.
The Palestinian link suggests that the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas group, based in the Israeli-occupied territories, may have had a hand in the World Trade Center bombing, says Bradford McGuinn, a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at Florida International University.
As Mr. McGuinn theorizes, "There is sort of an informal network in the Middle East of fundamentalist groups," and the New York bombing was "basically a joint venture between Hamas and the Islamic Group."