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And I'm Renee Montagne. Egypt's military leadership said they hit back hard against Islamist militants after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed Sunday near the border with Israel. State media reported more than 20 militants were killed in airstrikes and ground operations that began earlier this week. It was part of a new military campaign in the Sinai desert. Still, when NPR's Leila Fadel went to the villages where fighting was said to have been the most intense, she found no evidence of that.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Young men gather in el Shallag village outside a simple shack. They watch TV here, park their motorbikes outside and waste time. Most have no jobs.
ABDEL RAHMAN MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: Abdel Rahman Mohammed laughs when I ask him about the vast military operation that is said to be ongoing here. The military campaign was praised by Israel and welcomed by the United States. Both had been expressing concern for months about the security vacuum in this relatively lawless land.
But Mohammed said this was all propaganda to show the world and Egyptians that the military could deal with the internal threat of a growing number of violent militants here. The vast majority of this operation is playing out in inflated statements on television, he says.
MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: He says he watched the same reports that brought me here, describing airstrikes in his backyard. But in his village, one of 14 that make up the area of Sheikh Zuweid, no one is dead and nothing was hit. So we move on, trying to find signs of the destruction.
We move past the families filling water tanks from an underground well. There hasn't been potable water in homes here for over a month. And we drive to El Goura.
IBRAHIM AYYAD: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: Ibrahim Ayyad sits on a mattress under the shade of an open hut made of reeds and branches. His son naps nearby. He heard a few explosions, but nothing happened, he says. There were no clashes. Anyway, it was more focused in Touma, a village nearby. Go look there, he says.
But before we leave, the 50-year-old father of five tells us the same as those in el Shallag. There's no potable water here, and although he works as a driver, none of his sons can find work. The region has always been neglected, but since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, the security vacuum has grown.
AHMED MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: In Touma, 11-year-old Ahmed Mohammed stands with his father outside their home. Not one person was killed, he says. His father, Mohamed Salman, laughs and says the same. There are no tank treads, no destruction, just white sand, peach trees and apricot trees. A helicopter did fly above, Salman says. Tanks passed by and left.
MOHAMMED SALMAN: (Through translator) Not a single person died, and if they're saying that people were killed, they should show us the bodies, tell us the names. They should prove it.
FADEL: In these desert lands, Bedouin tribal law reigns, he says. If someone were dead, the tribes would know. There would be families mourning. There would be bodies. There would be funeral tents to visit and people to pay condolences to, he says.
SALMAN: (Through translator) They want to calm the public opinion in Egypt down. It's a disappointment. I can't see anything happening. It's all nonsense. I was there. I called my friends in other villages, and my friends called me. It's just a show.
FADEL: The Bedouin have long been marginalized. The desert peninsula lacks infrastructure and basic services in many places. Following attacks on tourist destinations in 2004, the Bedouin were abused and blamed by the police here. All these factors could be contributors to the increase in Islamist militancy in the Sinai, analysts say.
Outside the central security building in the provincial capital of Arish in northern Sinai, military trucks carrying a few dozen tanks and weaponry are driven towards the border with Israel and Gaza to reinforce armed forces up there. Heavy machinery is also being moved to the border to fill tunnels dug underground between Sinai and Gaza for smuggling goods, but also a route for militants to pass through.
This so far is the only visible sign of Egypt's Operation Eagle, aimed at securing the Sinai, that we could see. By nightfall, the minister of interior, who oversees police, arrives to meet with tribal leaders in north Sinai and assess the operation. Outside the meeting, the deputy head of security in northern Sinai, General Sameeh Bashandy, refuses to be recorded. But he says security forces didn't lie. The Bedouin are just too proud to admit that there are deaths.
Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.