Egyptian helicopter gunships killed 20 militants in Sinai on Wednesday, state media and the army said, days after 16 soldiers were killed in an attack attributed to Islamist extremists.
The military’s strikes on Tumah village – its first in the peninsula for decades – were carried out as security forces massed near Rafah on the Gaza border for what they called a decisive confrontation with the militants.
A senior military official in Sinai, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said “20 terrorists were killed” in Apache helicopter raids and when soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division stormed Tumah.
Other security officials in the north of the peninsula reported air strikes near the town of Sheikh Zuwayid, close to the village.
But state news agency MENA gave a conflicting account of how the militants were killed.
“Terrorist elements fired rockets and shells and heavy machine guns … at the aircraft combing the area, but did not hit the aircraft, and ground forces then dealt with them and killed a number of them,” the agency reported.
Overnight, unknown assailants attacked four security checkpoints near the town of El-Arish, security officials said.
The interior ministry said three policemen were wounded.
The air strikes came a day after the military held a funeral for the 16 soldiers who died in Sunday’s attack by militants amid widespread calls for vengeance.
The soldiers were killed when Islamist militants raided a border guard base under the cover of mortar fire, and commandeered a military vehicle into neighboring Israel before they were stopped by an Israeli helicopter strike.
Security forces had raided homes on Tuesday in search of suspects in the attack, as they prepared to close tunnels to the Palestinian Gaza Strip used to smuggle weapons and militants as well as food and other supplies.
Israel had handed over to Egypt six “completely charred” bodies that were in the armored personnel carrier that was driven into Israel before being destroyed, said a medical official in El-Arish.
The reports of the Egyptian raids in Sinai were welcomed in the Jewish state.
“These extremist organizations can harm the entire Middle East, it is not just against Egypt,” said Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense ministry official.
“The penny has dropped in Egypt, their level of awareness has been heightened. They are moving to action,” he told Israeli radio.
The bodies from Sunday’s attack have not yet been identified, but security officials blame Bedouin militants and Palestinian Islamists from Gaza for the attack.
Sunday’s bloodshed highlighted the government’s tenuous grip on the Sinai Peninsula, from where Islamist militants have launched several rocket attacks on Israel and a deadly cross border raid last year.
It also presents a challenge to Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood has good relations with the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip.
Morsi did not attend the funeral, where some protesters chanted slogans against the Brotherhood and, witnesses said, tried to assault the Islamist Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.
Morsi’s spokesman said in a statement that the president did not attend because the security measures needed to guard the president would have impinged on the “popular character” of the ceremony.
Morsi has received both Hamas’s chief and its prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, in visits, along with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, and his government had eased border restrictions on Gaza.
Following Sunday’s attack, Egypt indefinitely closed its Rafah crossing with Gaza, the Palestinian territory’s only access to the outside world that is not controlled by Israel.
The enclave has been under a semi-blockade by Israel since Hamas seized it in 2007.
After president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, militants stepped up attacks in Sinai, prompting the military, then in charge of the country, to send reinforcements to the peninsula.
[image via Agence France-Presse]