CAIRO — An Egyptian military spokesman says Egyptian Air Force helicopters have been carrying out strikes close to the Israeli border, in an effort to root out Islamist militants operating in the area.
The attacks follow claims by an Islamist militant group that an Israeli drone strike Friday killed at least four of its fighters.
Egyptian media are reporting that Islamist militants attacked army troops overnight in the coastal Sinai resort town of el Arish. A soldier guarding an officers club was lightly wounded. Another attack was reported near the town of Sheikh Zaweid, near the border with Gaza. Militants have stepped up attacks on army forces in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, the army says it has used Apache helicopters in a series of strikes on militant targets near the Israeli border. An army statement indicated that at least 12 militants were killed in a strike on the village of Touma, near Sheikh Zaweid, overnight.
An army spokesman has denied reports that Israeli drones carried out a strike against Islamist militants on Egyptian soil. An Islamist militant group calling itself Beit al Moqadess claimed that four of its fighters were killed by an Israeli drone strike Friday.
Retired Egyptian General Hussam Suweillam told Sky News Arabia that the Egyptian army finds itself in a “delicate position” regarding public opinion and “would need to respond if an outside power were known to have attacked Egyptian soil.”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon stressed Saturday that Israel “respects Egyptian sovereignty,” and said he “appreciates” that the Egyptian military has stepped up activity in the Sinai to combat terrorism.
Veteran Egyptian editor and publisher Hisham Kassem argues that militant activity in the Sinai is a reaction by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its various allies to the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi.
"There was a president who was actively protecting terrorists who kept flooding into the country and beginning to prepare to create an alternative army in the Sinai. Now, once that president was ousted, some of the leaders of the [Muslim Brotherhood] openly said that these operations are targeting the interim government,” said Kassem.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mohamed Baltagi said recently that “attacks on the army in the Sinai will stop, as soon as (ousted) president Mohamed Morsi is restored to power." Few Egyptian analysts, however, believe it is likely that Morsi will be reinstated.
Egyptian media has reported for weeks that the Muslim Brotherhood and its ally, Hamas, which controls Gaza, are trying to create a “Free Egyptian Army,” to battle government forces and reinstate Morsi.