Egypt’s military on Wednesday said its campaign against terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula was “a complete success and will continue,” AFP reported.
“On Tuesday evening, elements from the armed forces and interior ministry supported by the air force began a plan to restore security by pursuing and targeting armed terrorist elements in Sinai, and it has accomplished this task with complete success,” the military said in a statement.
Attack helicopters fired missiles on suspected Islamic terrorists in Sinai late Tuesday and early Wednesday morning, killing at least 20 people, after terror cells mounted an attack on security checkpoints and two days after terrorists killed 16 Egyptian troops in a major assault at the Gaza-Egypt-Israel border, Egyptian security officials and residents said.
Security officials said it is the first time that the Egyptian army has fired missiles in Sinai since the 1973 war with Israel.
The attackers responded by firing at least one anti-aircraft missile at the helicopters, Egyptian media reported.
The offensive continued throughout the morning, with reports of Egyptian forces searching homes to root our terrorists.
Security officials told The Associated Press that they launched the missile attack just hours after three security checkpoints were attacked by suspected Islamic terrorists in North Sinai’s main city of el-Arish, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Gaza-Israel border.
The checkpoint attacks came two days after a deadly strike on a military installation in Rafah, in which terrorists killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and then charged, with armored vehicles, at the Kerem Shalom border checkpoint. They were thwarted by Israeli troops.
Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, Egyptian state news agency MENA reported that “unknown gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint on the main road between el-Arish and Rafah,” and that exchanges of gunfire continued late into the night.
The checkpoint described in the report was presumably the Al-Risa checkpoint, which had already been attacked 28 times since the fall of Egypt’s longtime leader Hosni Mubarak 18 months ago.
Local residents said the shooting subsided in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Officials said six people were wounded in the Egyptian army missile attacks — among them a military officer, two soldiers, two policemen and a civilian whose condition is critical.
“We succeeded in entering the village of A-Touma, we killed 20 terrorists and wiped out three border police vehicles they were using,” an Egyptian army official told Reuters. “The operation is still in progress.”
Bedouin resident Abdel Rahman Abol Malkhous said he saw attack helicopters overhead firing missiles about 30 kilometers (18 1/2 miles) east of el-Arish in the area known as Sheikh Zuwayed near the Rafah border crossing with Gaza.
Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said the military also carried out separate attacks just outside Sheikh Zuwayed.
Protests also erupted in el-Arish early Wednesday, hours after the gunmen opened fire on the checkpoints.
Angry demonstrators rallied demanding protection from the state and shouting “God is great” in front of a governor’s office.
Many Egyptians blame Israel for Sunday’s attack at the Gaza-Egypt-Israel border, and protesters on Monday night in Cairo called for the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador Yaakov Amitai.
Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi did not attend Tuesday’s funeral for the slain soldiers, possibly fearing some sort of backlash. He indicated, however, that his country would respect all of its existing international agreements, including the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, while defending its own interests.
Speaking to reporters who asked about the possibility of amending existing agreements with Israel, Morsi’s spokesperson Yasser Ali said that the president “stresses the country’s respect for international agreements.”
Ali added that it is still unclear who perpetrated Sunday’s attack in Rafah. He said a joint task force involving several national agencies was working around the clock to investigate the incident.
Morsi fired his intelligence chief Murad Muwafi and the governor of Northern Sinai following the deadly attacks.
In a major shake-up, Morsi also asked Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi to replace the commander of the military police, a force that has been heavily used since the ouster 18 months ago of Hosni Mubarak.