Egypt says 5 of its troops killed, demands that Israel investigate
JERUSALEM // Egypt yesterday demanded an investigation into the deaths of five of its security personnel killed as Israeli soldiers pursued militants responsible for the worst attack on Israel in three years.
Eight Israelis were killed on Thursday when gunmen, alleged to have infiltrated from the Gaza Strip, attacked civilian vehicles in southern Israel near the Egyptian border.
An Egyptian interior ministry official told the Associated Press that three policemen were killed on Thursday and two soldiers died yesterday from wounds. The official said it was not yet clear who shot the soldiers, but "most probably" they were caught in the crossfire when Israeli soldiers were chasing the militants.
The news of Israel's retaliation for the attack prompted angry crowds to demonstrate in front of Israel's embassy in Cairo where they demanded that the Israeli ambassador be sent home.
Israel said the gunmen crossed into the southern part of the country through Egypt's Sinai desert. Such access would reinforce Israeli fears that a state of lawlessness has emerged in the Sinai following Egypt's revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, a reliable friend of Israel whose military used to keep a firm presence in the Bedouin-inhabited area.
"Egypt filed an official complaint with Israel following yesterday's deaths at the border between Israel and Egypt," Egypt's official Mena agency reported yesterday.
"Egypt has demanded an urgent probe into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries of Egyptian forces' members inside our borders," the agency quoted a military official as saying.
Thursday's assualt, about 30 kilometres north of the city of Eilat, led to a fresh outbreak of violence between Israel and militants in Gaza.
At least 10 rockets were fired from the territory deep into Israel late Thursday and early yesterday after the Israeli military pounded suspected militant ouposts, smuggling tunnels and rocket-launching sites with air strikes.
Medical officials in Gaza said the air strikes injured 17 people and killed a 13-year-old boy. Palestinian television coverage yesterday showed eight bodies at a morgue, apparently killed in the attacks.
At least two people at a school and synagogue in the Israeli city of Ashdod were injured from the Gaza-fired rockets, one of which was intercepted by Israel's missile defence shield, the Israeli military said.
Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, the military's chief spokesman, told Israel's Army Radio yesterday it was "too early" to talk about a broader escalation in fighting.
"If we see that Hamas is choosing to escalate, we will not hesitate to expand the scope of our actions, respond in strength and exact a price from Hamas," he said of Gaza's Islamist rulers. Hamas has denied involvement in Thursday attacks, carried out by militants that Israel said entered through the Sinai, originally from Gaza.
Israeli officials have yet to provide evidence of a Gaza link and sceptical Palestinian officials in the West Bank's ruling Fatah faction have condemned the Israeli response as "collective punishment".
A statement released by Nabil Shaath, a member of Fatah, called the Gaza strikes "Israeli insanity" and vowed that the Palestinian bid to win United Nations statehood recognition would not be derailed.
"On the contrary," he said, "it will give us a stronger motivation to continue our move."
Thursday's attack was the worst violence Israel had experienced since a Palestinian gunman killed eight people at a religious school in Jerusalem in 2008.
Speaking on Thursday, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed retaliation, saying that if "terror organisations think they can harm our citizens and get away with it, they will soon learn how wrong they are. We will make them pay a price, a very heavy price".
Israel's military responded swiftly, striking the Gaza-based group it blames for carrying out the attack, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) - an armed faction independent of Hamas. The PRC's leader, Immad Hammad, and a deputy were reportedly killed by the air strikes.
Yesterday the group denied they were involved. "We salute [the operation] and we are proud of it, but we do not claim it," the PRC spokesman Abu Mujahidsaid told AFP in the Gaza city of Rafah as the faction buried five members who had been killed in the Israeli air strikes.
"The occupation wants to pin this operation on us in order to escape its own internal problems," he said.
The situation in Sinai has frayed already tense relations between Israel and Egypt's new military rulers.
Last week, Egypt launched a major operation to rein in suspected Al Qaeda-inspired militants in the area, which shares a 200km, largely porous border with Israel.
Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that a suicide bomber injured several Egyptian soldiers patrolling the border with Israel yesterday.
"We would hope that yesterday's terrorist attack on the border would serve as an impetus for the Egyptian side to more effectively exercise their sovereignty in Sinai," an Israeli official told Reuters yesterday.
"The Israeli assessment is that Egypt is in no way interested in seeing extremist elements establish a platform in Sinai. In our assessment, that would hurt their interest as much as it hurts ours."
* Additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Published: August 20, 2011 04:00 AM