Egyptian helicopter gunships killed 20 militants in Sinai yesterday, 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 the 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 airstrikes near the town of Sheikh Zuwayid, close to the village.
However, 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 airstrikes 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.
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, a medical official in El-Arish said.
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.
Sunday’s bloodshed highlighted the government’s tenuous grip on the Sinai Peninsula, from where militants have launched several rocket attacks on Israel and a deadly cross border raid last year.
It also presents a challenge to new Egyptian 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 Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.
Morsi’s spokesman said in a statement that the president did not attend because the security measures needed to guard him would have impinged on the “popular character” of the ceremony.