Egypt says top jihadist killed as election campaign closes

A top jihadist has been killed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, security officials said Friday, ahead of next week's presidential election expected to sweep the ex-army chief to power on pledges to eradicate terrorism.

Shadi el-Menei, a senior commander of Egypt's deadliest militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem), was gunned down in an overnight ambush in his native Sinai Peninsula, the officials said.

Word of his death, not immediately confirmed by jihadist sources, came on the last official day of campaigning for Egypt's presidential election, in which ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to rout his sole rival, leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi.

There were conflicting accounts of who carried out the ambush.

Some officials said civilians from the Sinai's heavily armed tribes killed Menei.

Others said local Bedouins tipped off security forces, who intercepted him and other militants as they prepared to bomb a gas pipeline.

Some Bedouin tribesmen have in recent months collaborated with security forces against militants.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed some of the deadliest and highest profile attacks on security forces since the army overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July.

They have included a bombing at Cairo police headquarters last December and an assassination attempt against the interior minister in September, as well as frequent attacks on security forces in the group's Sinai base.

The US State Department designated the group a "foreign terrorist organisation" in April.

Before Morsi's ouster, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis mainly targeted Israel, through attacks on the gas export pipeline through the Sinai to Israel. In January, its fighters fired a rocket at Israel's Red Sea resort of Eilat.

Since Morsi's ouster the group has escalated its operations, and the military-installed authorities say more than 500 people have died in the violence, mostly security personnel.

The group is thought to have been founded in 2011 following the Arab Spring uprising which ended president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

Its command structure and funding sources remain shadowy and analysts said Menei was just one of several leading figures within the group.

A founder, Tawfiq Mohamed Fareej, was killed in March when a car accident set off a bomb he was carrying.

The army has poured troops into the Sinai to tackle the militants, securing Israeli backing for the deployment in the sensitive peninsula, where troop numbers are restricted under the countries' 1979 peace treaty.

The authorities have repeatedly blamed the surge in violence on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which they designated a terrorist organisation in December, despite its repeated condemnation of the violence.

- Fears of autocracy -

"Vengeance is coming," Ansar Beit al-Maqdis warned Sisi earlier this year, and the group launched twin suicide bombings outside the South Sinai provincial capital Al-Tur on May 2 before the launch of the election campaign.

Sisi is running on a pledge to stamp out the violence and has promised if he wins, there will be no place for the Brotherhood, whose top leaders are all in jail or exile.

In his campaign appearances, he has played to the security credentials and strongman image that endeared Sisi to Egyptians weary of the turmoil which has ravaged the economy and vital tourism sector.

But his opponents say if he becomes president, Egypt is likely to see a return to the autocratic rule of the Mubarak years.

On Friday, prominent newspaper columnist Fahmy Howeidy, who strongly criticised Morsi's ouster, was barred from leaving for Spain, officials at Cairo airport said.

Meanwhile, one person was killed and three others wounded when Morsi supporters clashed with police after Friday prayers in Fayoum, southwest of Cairo, security officials said.

Protests were reported elsewhere in Egypt, which is staging presidential elections on Monday and Tuesday.

A home-made bomb detonated by a fuel station run by the army in Cairo's Nasr City district soon after security forces dispersed a pro-Morsi march with teargas.

No casualties were reported in the blast.

Amnesty International said Thursday dozens of civilians have been subjected to enforced disappearances and held for months in secret detention at the Al-Galaa army camp north of Cairo.

The detainees have been subjected to torture to make them confess to crimes, it said.

"These are practices associated with the darkest hours of military and Mubarak's rule," said Amnesty's Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui.