Egypt military vows to hunt down Sinai attackers

By Ashraf Sweilam

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 6 2012 8:55 a.m. MDT

Israeli soldiers look at the wreckage of an Egyptian military vehicle after militants burst it through a security fence into Israel from Egypt, after it was brought to an Israeli military base along the border with Egypt, southern Israel, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. Officials say Egypt has deployed at least two helicopter gunships to the Sinai Peninsula in the hunt for militants behind the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers at a checkpoint along the border with Israel. Suspected Islamists on Sunday evening attacked the Egyptian checkpoint, killed the troops, then stole two of their vehicles and burst through a security fence into Israel. Israeli aircraft then halted their assault.

Tsafrir Abayov, Associated Press

EL-ARISH, Egypt — Egypt's military vowed on Monday to hunt down those behind the killing of its 16 soldiers at a checkpoint along the Sinai border with Israel. It called the attackers "enemies of the nation" and suggested they were Egyptian Sinai-based militants who received Palestinian support from the Gaza Strip.

The violence — which saw the attackers try to break through the border after killing the soldiers — could increase tensions with Israel, which has stepped up pressure on Egypt to clamp down on the lawless border region.

"The armed forces have been careful in the past months and during the events of the (2011 Egyptian) revolution (that ousted Hosni Mubarak) not to shed Egyptian blood ... but the group that staged yesterday's attack is considered by the armed forces as enemies of the nation who must be dealt with by force," said the military's statement.

The attack and the army's promised crackdown add to the host of political, economic and security crises that festered under Mubarak and that now face his successor, newly elected President Mohammed Morsi, whose powers are limited by the military.

It could mark an escalation in the Sinai's decade-long low-level Islamist insurgency. Sunday's attack is among the worst-ever against Egyptian soldiers.

Israel says its aircraft killed between six and eight militants. Egyptian officials have said six attackers were killed. A statement by the Egyptian armed forces said 35 militants took part in the attack, suggesting that close to 30 attackers may be on the run.

Security and military officials said at least two helicopter gunships arrived in the border town of El-Arish on Monday to join the hunt for the militants believed responsible. Israel meanwhile stepped up pressure on Egypt to clamp down on the lawless border region.

Morsi, who has vowed to avenge the attack, was due to travel to the border region later on Monday.

In the first direct indication that the attackers may have had the help of Palestinian militants, the statement said "elements from the Gaza Strip" aided the attackers by shelling the Egyptian-Israeli border crossing of Karam Abu Salem with mortars as the attack was taking place.

The security and military officials said counter-terrorism units arrived in the border town of El-Arish on Monday and joint police-army patrols were combing the ground. Aircraft patrolled the sky overhead, they said.

The officials said more helicopter gunships were expected to join the two already in the border zone.

The Sinai has seen a surge of violence since Mubarak's ouster last year, but Sunday's attack was the worst in several years. Suspected Islamists attacked the checkpoint in the border town of Rafah at sunset, killing the soldiers as they were sitting down for the traditional meal breaking the fast in the holy month of Ramadan.

The attackers then commandeered two of their vehicles and burst through a security fence into Israel, according to Israeli officials. They said the incursion was quickly spotted and hit with an airstrike. Egypt's military said only one armored vehicle was commandeered.

The unrest in Sinai poses a daunting challenge to President Morsi, who since coming to office a little more than a month ago has warmed up to Gaza's Hamas rulers. Hamas officials have condemned the killings, but Morsi may still come under pressure to back down from plans to end Egypt's cooperation with the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

He vowed on Sunday night to make the killers pay for their crime and to restore security to Sinai, home to several of the most popular Red Sea resorts in Egypt. On Monday, he declared three days of mourning for the victims, according to state television.

"This is a huge calamity for Egypt," declared his spokesman Yasser Ali.

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