Egypt launches air strikes on Sinai
Egyptian aircraft struck at targets near the border with Israel in a crackdown on Islamic militants.
AL-ARISH - Egyptian aircraft struck at targets near the border with Israel on Wednesday and troops raided villages in a crackdown on Islamic militants blamed for a deadly attack on Egyptian border police, army officials and witnesses said.
The air strikes around the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, 10 km (6 miles) from 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 signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, an accord which brought a close to a succession of wars between the two countries.
The attackers stormed through the border into Israel but they were killed by Israeli fire.
The militants, who are sworn to destroy Israel, have stepped up their actions along the isolated desert frontier since an uprising toppled Egypt's autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak last year.
The new president, Mohamed Mursi, a moderate Islamist who took office in June, has tried to allay Israeli concerns with promises to bring the region back under government control.
The Egyptian army, which kept peace with Israel throughout the Mubarak years, still keeps broad sway over national security. 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.
Israel said Egypt's action against the militants was a necessary response against groups threatening its security.
Egyptian army rockets have not been fired in the area since Egypt's 1973 war with Israel and the military operation appeared to be the biggest there since the peace treaty was signed.
The militant strongholds are in northern Sinai, away from the Red Sea resorts further south that are popular with foreign tourists and a lifeline for Egypt's struggling economy.
Witnesses in Sheikh Zuwaid said they saw two military planes fly over the area and heard explosions on Wednesday morning. Other people near the town said they saw three cars bombed.
Troops entered the village of al-Toumah, 20 km (15 miles) further south, after the army received information that Islamist militants were staying there, military commanders in Sinai told Reuters.
"We have succeeded in entering al-Toumah village, killed 20 terrorists and destroyed three armoured cars belonging to terrorists. Operations are still ongoing," he said by telephone.
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 commandeering a unit in al-Toumah said the militants were hiding beneath a hill.
"They tried to escape in three vans but the helicopter met them on the other side, fired rockets at them and destroyed the three vehicles."
After Sunday's attack, Israel had called on Egypt to end lawlessness near the border and the Egyptian army promised retribution, branding the attackers "infidels".
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.