CAIRO: Egyptian helicopter gunships killed 20 militants in the Sinai yesterday, state media and the army said, days after 16 soldiers were killed in an attack attributed to extremists.
The air strikes on Tumah village — the military’s first in Sinai 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 on condition of anonymity, said “20 terrorists were killed” in Apache helicopter air strikes and when soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division stormed Tumah.
“The operation is continuing,” he said. Other security officials in the north of the peninsula reported air strikes near the town of Shaikh Zuwayid, close to the village.
But the official news Mena news agency 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 militants raided a border guard base under the cover of mortar fire, and commandeered a military vehicle into Israel before they were stopped by an Israeli helicopter strike.
Israel had handed over to Egypt six “completely charred” bodies that were in the armoured personnel carrier that was driven into Israel before being destroyed, said a medical official in El Arish.
The bodies have not yet been identified, but security officials blame Bedouin militants 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 President Mohammed Mursi, 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.