Cairo: Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi has vowed that his forces will take full control of Sinai after suspected militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.
“The perpetrators and their collaborators will pay a dear price,” said Mursi in a televised address early yesterday. “The blood of the martyrs will not go to waste,” he added following a crisis meeting with senior army and security commanders.
The Egyptian army, meanwhile, vowed to avenge the deaths. “We swear by God that we will take revenge. A dear price will be exacted from all those who have attacked our troops in the past months. A dear price will also be exacted from anyone found to be linked with these groups whoever and wherever they are inside Egypt’s soil or outside,” the army said on its Facebook page.
The 16 soldiers were killed on Sunday evening when gunmen in Bedouin costumes attacked a checkpoint in the town of Rafah near the border with Gaza, security sources said.
Egyptian authorities have ordered the Rafah border crossing with Gaza be closed “indefinitely”, reported state media.
The attack occurred while the soldiers were having their fast-breaking meal at the sunset after a day-long fasting in the Muslim month of Ramadan, added the sources.
Egyptian state television quoted an unidentified source as blaming the assault on militants from the neighbouring Gaza controlled by the Palestinian movement Hamas.
“This terrorist operation confirms that the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza are not used for transporting food only,” said Emad Jad, an expert at the state-run newspaper Al Ahram. “These tunnels should be destroyed immediately. Food supplies should be carried through border crossings only,” he told Gulf News.
The attack came a week after a rare visit to Egypt by tje Prime Minister of the Hamas government Esmail Haniya who had talks with Mursi on easing an Israeli siege of the populous enclave.
“Hamas has turned a blind eye to the terrorist group that perpetrated this crime against Egyptian soldiers,” said Jad.
He warned that Israel might take advantage of the latest attack to carry out a military operation in Sinai, alleging that Egypt has failed to secure the peninsula.
Sinai has been the scene of turmoil and armed attacks on security personnel since a popular revolt toppled Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
Egyptian forces killed one of the suspected assailants and captured another in an ensuing gunbattle late Sunday, according to Al Ahram.
Israeli troops embarked on a “combing operation” of the border region and destroying the tunnels with Gaza, according to the paper.
“Israel was aware of this attack and even an active partner in it,” said Mustafa Bakri, a former lawmaker who has close links with the military. He cited Israel’s advice to its tourists on Thursday to leave Egypt’s Sinai for fear of a potential terrorist attack.
“What happened is a Zionist [Israeli] conspiracy to retake Sinai from Egypt and re-settle Palestinians there,” he added.
Israel had occupied the peninsula in the 1967 Middle East War, but Egypt regained it in the early 1980s after both countries signed a peace treaty that restricts the presence of Egyptian troops in the area.