An Israeli drone strike killed five suspected Islamic militants and destroyed a rocket launcher in Egypt’s largely lawless Sinai Peninsula on Friday, two senior Egyptian security officials said, describing a rare Israeli operation carried out in its Arab neighbor’s territory.
An al-Qaeda-linked group active in the Sinai Peninsula yesterday said its fighters were the target of a rare Israeli drone strike into Egyptian territory.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, in a statement posted on a militant Web site yesterday, said that four of its members were killed in the Friday attack as they were preparing a cross-border rocket strike into Israel.
It said the dead were from Egyptian Sinai tribes. The group said the rocket squad’s leader escaped.
The conflicting death tolls could not be reconciled.
The attack came a day after Israel briefly closed its airport in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, close to the Sinai, in response to unspecified security warnings.
Eilat was previously targeted by rocket fire from the Sinai.
Israel maintained official silence about the strike, suggesting that if the Jewish state was involved, it might be trying to avoid embarrassing the Egyptian military.
An Egyptian military spokesman later denied the report, but did not provide another cause for the explosion.
Egypt’s official MENA news agency said an explosion destroyed a rocket launcher set up near the border to launch attacks against Israel, and at least five Islamic militants were killed. However, it did not elaborate.
Bodies of the slain militants were charred from the blast, an Egyptian official said.
He said four of the dead appeared to belong to a family called el-Menaie whose members are wanted for several terrorism-related charges.
“Next to the bodies, there were rockets and a motorcycle that turned into pieces,” the official said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
A tribal leader in the area said that an Egyptian helicopter flew over the site a few minutes after the drone strike.
The Egyptian security officials said that the drone had been flying near the site of the attack since early on Friday on the Israeli side of the border and fired from there.
Those on the Egyptian side of the border could hear the drone buzzing overhead for hours, they said.
The site of the strike sits about 5km from the Israeli border.
An Israeli drone attack in the Sinai could signal a significant new level of security cooperation between the two former foes following a military coup that ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi last month.
The military has alleged that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement had turned a blind eye to Islamic militants in the Sinai.
Meanwhile, Morsi’s ouster, which came after mass protests demanding he step down, has triggered a rise in attacks against security forces on the peninsula, raising fears that extremists could exploit Islamist anger to spread their insurgency.
The Egyptian security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Israeli attack was launched in cooperation with Egyptian authorities despite past insistence that the government would not allow anyone to use its territories to launch attacks against jihadi groups.
Israel has increased surveillance along the Egyptian border over the past two years, and is building a barrier along the 230km frontier to keep out militants and African migrants.