By: Yusri Mohamed | Reuters
AL-ARISH, Egypt (Reuters) - Egyptian aircraft struck at targets near the border with Israel on Wednesday and troops raided villages as a crackdown began on Islamic militants blamed for a deadly attack on Egyptian border police , army officials and witnesses said.
Israel , urging Egypt to deal with a growing threat on its southern flank, voiced approval of the security sweep, the biggest military assault in the area since their 1973 war.
The air strikes around the town of Sheikh Zuwaid , 10 km (6 miles) from the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip , followed clashes overnight between armed men and security forces at several checkpoints in the north of Egypt's Sinai region.
Gunmen killed 16 border guards on Sunday in the bloodiest attack on security forces in Sinai since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979. The attackers stormed through the border into Israel but they were killed by Israeli fire.
The militants, sworn to destroy Israel, have stepped up their actions on the isolated desert frontier since an uprising toppled Egypt's autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak last year.
The new president, Mohamed Mursi , a more moderate Islamist who took office in June, tried to allay Israeli concerns with promises to bring the region back under government control.
But Mursi has also brought Egypt closer to the Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza, making this a delicate time in relations between the Jewish state and the Arab power.
The militant strongholds are in northern Sinai. Red Sea resorts further south are popular with foreign tourists and a lifeline for Egypt's struggling economy.
The Egyptian army, which kept peace with Israel throughout the Mubarak years and still has broad sway over national security, promised retribution after Sunday's attacks and brought in 500 extra soldiers and police.
But there was no crackdown until Tuesday night after armed men opened fire on several checkpoints in al-Arish town, the security and administrative centre for northern Sinai.
Gunmen also attacked checkpoints in Rafah, Egypt's entry point into the Gaza Strip that borders both Israel and Egypt.
On Wednesday morning, witnesses in Sheikh Zuwaid said two military planes flew over the area and heard explosions. Other people near the town said they saw three cars bombed.
Egypt's military leadership said ground and air forces had begun to restore stability in Sinai.
"The forces were able to execute the plan successfully. The forces will continue the plan and calls on tribes and families of Sinai to cooperate in the restoration of security," it said.
Troops entered al-Toumah village, 20 km (15 miles) to the south, acting on information that militants were staying there, army commanders in Sinai told Reuters.
One said 20 militants were killed.
A villager said he saw military helicopters chasing vehicles out of al-Toumah and heard rocket fire. The men in the cars fired back with machine guns, he said.
An army general in al-Toumah said helicopters destroyed three vans in which militants tried to escape.
The military response focused on Shaikh Zuwaid, a mud-brick settlement that relies heavily on profits from smuggling goods and people through tunnels into Gaza since the Palestinian territory was cut off from Israel.
Egypt said the gunmen behind Sunday's attack arrived via the tunnels and it began work to seal them off on Tuesday.
Israel has long accused Palestinian jihadi groups of crossing from Gaza to Egypt to team up with local militants with the aim of attacking Israel's long border.
Last August armed infiltrators killed eight Israelis on the Egyptian frontier.
"What we see in Egypt is a strong fury, a determination of the regime and the army to take care of it and impose order in Sinai because that is their responsibility," a senior Israeli defence official, Amos Gilad, said on Israel Radio on Wednesday.
Mubarak's government worked closely with Israel to secure the frontier region until he was toppled 18 months ago.
The revolt made way for Egypt's first free leadership vote and brought into office the Islamist Mursi, whose commitment to security cooperation with Israel is now being tested.
Mursi has played down his Islamist background with a promise to serve all Egyptians, but political rivals have been quick to highlight his Hamas ties as a potential conflict of interest when national security is at stake.
Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said the situation would force Mursi's administration to deepen contacts with Israel over security, a step he had hoped to avoid, and restrict contacts with Hamas.
The Hamas prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said there was no evidence Gazans were involved in the latest violence.
To cement its hold on the settlements beyond al-Arish, the Cairo government needs the goodwill of local Bedouin already chafing over perceived injustice and neglect by the government.
Residents say most of the militants are also Bedouin who live alongside their fellow tribesmen but scorn them as heretics for following less hardline interpretations of Islam.
Based largely around Shaikh Zuwaid and Rafah, the jihadis have often returned home after hit-and-run attacks on security forces without fear of arrest, the residents say, citing tribal traditions that encourage solidarity against outsiders.
The latest security sweep revives memories of mass arrests after bombings of tourist areas of South Sinai in 2003 and 2005.
"People have been cooperative...but a repetition of such acts would stoke their anger and you cannot predict their reaction," said Salafi Islamist politician Mohsen Abu Hassan from Sheikh Zuwaid.
(Reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Al-Arish and Ahmed Tolba and Tamim Elyan in Cairo; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Yasmine Saleh and Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo; Editing by Angus MacSwan)