Cairo. Egypt’s army declared tentative victory in a crackdown on Islamist militants in Sinai on Wednesday, hours after state television reported the military killed 20 militants in unprecedented air strikes.
The campaign to uproot the militants was launched on Tuesday, two days after gunmen ambushed a border guard outpost near Israel’s border and killed 16 soldiers, the military said in a statement.
“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,” it said.
It would “continue implementing this plan,” it added in a statement, which did not provide details of the operation.
State news agency MENA gave a conflicting account of how the militants were killed, however.
“Terrorist elements fired rockets and shells and heavy machine guns … at the aircraft combing the area, but did not hit the aircraft, and ground forces then dealt with them and killed a number of them,” the agency reported.
The reported air strikes in Tumah village — the first in the peninsula for decades — came as security forces massed near Rafah on the Gaza border for what they called a decisive confrontation with the militants.
A senior military official in Sinai confirmed the state television report and said “20 terrorists were killed” in Apache helicopter raids and when soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division stormed Tumah.
He said the militants were trying to escape when the helicopter targeted their vehicles.
Other security officials in the north of the peninsula reported air strikes near the town of Sheikh Zuwayid, close to the village.
Overnight, unknown assailants attacked four security checkpoints near the town of El-Arish, security officials said.
The interior ministry said three policemen were wounded.
The strikes came a day after the military held a funeral for the 16 soldiers who died in Sunday’s attack amid widespread calls for vengeance.
The soldiers were killed when the militants raided a border guard base under the cover of mortar fire, and commandeered a military vehicle into neighboring Israel before they were stopped by an Israeli helicopter strike.
Security forces had raided homes on Tuesday in search of suspects in the attack, as they prepared to close tunnels to the Palestinian Gaza Strip used to smuggle weapons and militants as well as food and other supplies.
Israel had handed over to Egypt six “completely charred” bodies that were in the armored personnel carrier that was driven into Israel before being destroyed, said a medical official in El-Arish.
The reports of the Egyptian raids in Sinai were welcomed in Israel.
“These extremist organisations can harm the entire Middle East, it is not just against Egypt,” said Amos Gilad, a senior defence ministry official, told Israeli radio.
The bodies from Sunday’s attack have not yet been identified, but security officials blame Bedouin militants and Palestinian Islamists from Gaza for the attack.
In a rare public statement, intelligence chief Murad Muwafi said his agency had received information that militants would target security forces in the peninsula, and passed on the information “to the relevant authorities.”
Sunday’s bloodshed highlighted the government’s tenuous grip on the Sinai Peninsula, from where Islamist militants have launched several rocket attacks on Israel and a deadly cross border raid last year.
It also presents a challenge to Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood has good relations with the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip.
Morsi has received both Hamas’s chief and its prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, in visits, along with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, and his government had eased border restrictions on Gaza.
Following Sunday’s attack, Egypt indefinitely closed its Rafah crossing with Gaza, the Palestinian territory’s only access to the outside world that is not controlled by Israel.
The enclave has been under a semi-blockade by Israel since Hamas seized it in 2007.
After president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, militants stepped up attacks in Sinai, prompting the military, then in charge of the country, to send reinforcements to the peninsula.