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.
Security and military officials said Monday that more aircraft were expected to arrive in the town of El-Arish ahead of a military campaign against the militants in the area. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
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.
Egypt will impose full control over the Sinai, its new president has pledged as the Israeli government warned of a deteriorating security.
Mohamed Morsi said: “Those who carried out this crime will pay dearly.” In a speech on Egyptian state television, he added: “Clear orders have been given to our armed forces and police to chase and arrest those who carried out this assault on our children. The forces will impose full control over these areas of Sinai.”
The president convened an emergency meeting with military and security leaders in the aftermath of the assault, which he described as a “serious challenge to the Egyptian sovereignty”.
Following the attack, which was launched just after sunset on Sunday, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak said it had “again raised the need for determined Egyptian action to enforce security and prevent terror in the Sinai”.
He said Israel had contacted the Egyptian authorities to offer help. “We hope this will be a fitting wake-up call for the Egyptians to take things in hand on their side more forcefully,” he told the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee on Monday.
Israel has become increasingly concerned about a security vacuum in the Sinai in the 18 months since Hosni Mubarak, the former president and staunch ally of Israel, was deposed in the Egyptian revolution.
There have been a number of attacks and attempted attacks on Israel from across the border.
Israel says that some militant groups in Gaza have joined forces with Islamists operating in the Sinai. It describes the Sinai militants as “global jihadists” or connected to al-Qaida.
Since the revolution, Israel has permitted the Egyptian government to station more troops in the Sinai than is provided for under the 1979 peace treaty to increase security. Israel is prohibited from launching military operations in the Sinai, and such action would risk a major diplomatic crisis.
Israeli intelligence services said they had information about an impending infiltration and sent aircraft to strike at the second car the militants had seized from the Egyptian forces. “We were prepared for it, so there was a hit,” said Israeli military spokesman Brig-Gen Yoav Mordechai. The military “averted a major attack on southern Israel” he said.
The Egyptian authorities closed the Rafah crossing to Gaza following the attack.
Earlier on Sunday, a militant in Gaza was killed and another injured in an Israeli air strike on a motorcycle travelling near the Egyptian border. The IDF said in a statement that it had targeted aircraft targeted a “global jihad-affiliated terrorist squad in the southern Gaza Strip” which was responsible for an attack on the Israel-Egypt border in June in which an Israeli civilian was killed. Another attack was being planned, the IDF said.
However, the two incidents were not connected, according to an IDF spokesman.