Egypt’s army says it is crushing Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the region’s villages and towns a victory for the state feels a long way off.

In a rare visit to eight villages in Northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations, but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world’s biggest army and are nowhere near defeat. It is increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to openly enter conflict zones in the Sinai.

Residents say the militants – a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth – have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo.