JERUSALEM — Senior Israeli leaders are calling on Egypt's new government to strengthen security along their common border hours after alleged Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and tried to force their way into Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday visited the border area and praised Israeli forces for foiling what he said was an attempt to stage a major terrorist attack against Israeli civilians.
He expressed regret over the killing of the Egyptian soldiers and added that it is clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a quiet border.
The attack occurred Sunday night near the Egyptian border town of Rafah as Egyptian troops were breaking the Ramadan daily fast.
The gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and wounded several others. They seized two Egyptian personnel carriers and drove to the Israeli border. One vehicle exploded and the second was destroyed by Israeli air and ground forces.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak,accompanying Netanyahu, said Israeli forces had prevented what he called a much heavier attack.
He said it was an operational success and maybe a wakeup call to Egyptians to take security matters into their hands in a stronger way.
Israeli officials said eight attackers were killed. They said the Israelis had advance warning of the attack from intelligence services.
Egypt's new President Mohammed Morsi called the attack cowardly and convened an emergency meeting of the Supreme Military Council.
He said this event will not go by without response. He promised to control and enforce security in the Sinai region and said those responsible would be punished.
The Sinai has become increasingly lawless since the ouster last year of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Israeli officials say the lack of security has allowed Islamist extremists, which they call global jihadists, to infiltrate the area and stage attacks into Israel.
An Israeli military contractor was killed six weeks ago in such an attack.
Eight Israeli civilians and three Egyptian soldiers were killed in another attack one year ago near the Red Sea port of Eilat.
Israeli officials say some of the militants are coming from the Gaza Strip which for the past five years has been controlled by the Hamas Palestinian group. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs.
The Egyptian news agency MENA said some of the attackers had infiltrated from Gaza through illegal tunnels.
Hamas condemned the attack. A spokesman, Taher al-Nono, said no Palestinian could take part in such an ugly crime and said security officials were working to maintain security.
The Egyptian government closed the Gaza crossing at Rafah and sent helicopter gunships to the area to launch a search for the remaining attackers.