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Egypt troops storm Islamist town

Egyptian security forces backed by armoured fighting vehicles and helicopters have stormed a town known to be an Islamist stronghold outside Cairo near the Great Pyramids, coming under barrages of fire from gunmen on rooftops.

A police general fell in the first moments of the battle at around 6 am. Gen Nabil Farrag had just given a pep talk to his men on the street, preparing them to roll into the town of Kerdasa, when they came under a hail of gunfire, according to journalists at the scene.

Army soldiers and policemen ducked for cover behind armoured vehicles and behind walls. Gen Farrag fell with a bullet wound in his right side. He lay in the street for nearly 15 minutes, blood soaking through his white uniform, until his men could reach him and carry him into a car to take to a hospital. The Interior Ministry announced his death later.

The assault on Kerdasa underlined a stepped-up resolve by the military-backed government to suppress strongholds of supporters of Egypt's ousted Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. Earlier this week, a large army-police force stormed Dalga, a town in southern Egypt, to break the hold of Islamic militants who took control there after the military toppled Mr Morsi on July 3.

Kerdasa carries more strategic importance than Dalga since it is a short drive away from Cairo's centre and is near the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt's primary tourist attraction. The town witnessed a brutal assault on security forces last month when heavily armed Morsi supporters killed 15 police officers and mutilated their bodies.

On Thursday, a large force of army troops and policemen surrounded Kerdasa, blocking entrances with armed vehicles, as security forces moved into the town. State TV said security forces were using loudspeakers to urge residents to stay indoors to avoid the crossfire.

Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Hani Abdel-Latif said army special forces would be used to round up armed men."There will be no retreat until it is cleansed of all terrorist and criminal hideouts," he said in a statement.

A senior police commander at the scene, Gen Medhat el-Menshawy, said police arrested 55 suspects in house-to-house raids. Those detained reportedly included three men suspected of involvement in the killings of the policemen. At least 10 policemen were injured in two separate grenade attacks.

The quick succession of the two major raids against Kerdasa and Dalga point to a new push by authorities to restore law and order throughout a country gripped by unrest and violence since the 2011 ousting of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. More than a 1,000 people have died in political violence since June 30 when millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand the ousting of Mr Morsi. Since the July 3 coup that removed him, he has been detained at an undisclosed location.

In a sign security may finally be showing some improvement, state television said the nighttime curfew slapped on the country since mid-August will be reduced by one hour effective Saturday to start at midnight and be lifted at 5 am.

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