Egypt is preparing to set up a buffer zone of between 1.5 and 3 kilometers with the Gaza Strip, an Egyptian daily reported Saturday, following a deadly attack in Sinai on Friday that left over 30 Egyptian soldiers dead.
Forces were expected to start clearing the zone of structures and vegetation in the coming days, Al-Youm al-Sabaa reported. Army patrols were also set to be increased along the coast from El-Arish, in the northern Sinai peninsula, to the Egyptian border town of Rafah, in an effort to thwart the maritime smuggling of supplies to terrorists.
According to a report in the Egyptian al-Ahram cited by Israel Radio, which quotes an anonymous intelligence official, the perpetrators of the attack Friday infiltrated the peninsula via a tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip. The same source added that although the Egyptian army destroyed over 1,500 tunnels that ran between Gaza and Sinai, some have been rebuilt and were being used to smuggle weapons, funds and manpower.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Saturday that the deadly assault on an army checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula was a “foreign-funded operation.”
Roaring in front of cameras on Saturday, el-Sissi said there were foreign powers that wanted to “break the back of Egypt,” without elaborating. He vowed to take drastic measures to uproot the militants and said Egypt was engaged in an “extensive war” that would last a long time.
“There is a big conspiracy against us,” he said while standing with army commanders ahead of a military funeral for the slain soldiers and officers.
Egypt declared a three-month state of emergency Friday in the north and center of the Sinai Peninsula after the attack, the presidency said.
The measures began on Saturday at 0300 GMT “for a duration of three months,” the presidency said in a statement in the wake of the deadliest attack on the security forces since the army deposed Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last year.
The decision was also taken to close the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip.
“The army and the police will take all necessary measures to tackle the dangers of terrorism and its financing, to preserve the security of the region… and protect the lives of citizens,” the presidential decree said.
The bombing was carried out by a suspected jihadist who rammed the checkpoint with a vehicle packed with explosives, security officials said.
Gunmen also shot dead an officer and wounded two soldiers on Friday at another checkpoint south of El-Arish, security officials said.
Since Morsi’s ouster, more than 1,400 of his supporters have been killed in a crackdown by the authorities.
Over 15,000 others have been jailed including Morsi and the top leadership of his Muslim Brotherhood, and more than 200 sentenced to death in speedy trials.
Relations between Egypt and Gaza’s rulers Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, soured considerably after the ouster.