Egypt vows strong response to Sinai attack

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has vowed that he will retake control of the Sinai after an attack near the Israeli border left at least 16 Egyptian guards dead.

The Israeli military says that five of the attackers, who attempted to enter Israel through the crossing during the raid, were killed.

"I have given clear orders to all of our security forces, the armed forces as well as the interior police, to move swiftly in capturing those behind this vicious attack," Morsi said in a television address early on Monday.

"This incident will not go lightly. The security forces will implement entire control over all of these areas within Sinai and will ensure they are controlling it. Those behind the attacks will pay a high price as well as those who have been co-operating with those attackers, be it those inside or anywhere in Egypt."

Sunday's assault at Karem Abu Salem crossing in north Sinai - on the border between Egypt and Israel - took place as gunmen reportedly tried to smash their way across the border into Israel.

The Israeli military said the attack was part of a plot to abduct an Israeli soldier, and two vehicles commandeered by the attackers crashed into Israel, where one blew up.

Egyptian state television said that armed foreign fighters were behind the attack.

"State media is quoting unnamed officials saying that foreign fighters, armed groups, belonging to some previously unknown extremist group have infiltrated the country from Gaza through the tunnels criss-crossing the porous border area," Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh reported from Cairo on Sunday.

"But we are unable to independently corroborate these allegations just yet," she said.

Rageh said the border police patrol were ambushed by masked armed men while they were having their traditional meal at the end of the daily fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan.

Strong response

After the attack, Morsi held an urgent meeting with the country's military, and promised a strong response to the attack.

"Those who were martyred in this attack during the time when they were breaking their fast during this holy month of Ramadan, those martyrs, their blood will not go in vain," Morsi said.

A senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to reporters, said seven other guards were wounded in the attack.

He said the attackers seized an armoured vehicle before driving away.

Israel said the attackers commandeered two Egyptian vehicles and tried to storm its border.

One of the vehicles exploded and the second was targeted by Israeli aircraft, Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman.

Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, said that eight of the attackers had been killed. He said the raid showed need for "determined Egyptian action" to impose security and "prevent terror in Sinai".

Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, an Israeli military spokesperson, said on Monday that intelligence services had received reports of a planned attack beforehand and were "prepared for it".

'Ugly crime'

In a statement, Hamas, the Palestinian group controlling the Gaza Strip near Sinai, condemned the attack, calling it an "ugly crime" and extended "deep condolences to the families of the victims and to the leadership and the people of Egypt".

Security officials told Al Jazeera early on Monday that they were in possession of three bodies of the perpetrators of the attack. The three are believed to have been killed while trying to enter Israel.

The official did not specify whether those attackers were killed by Egyptian or Israeli fire. He said that 10 people were believed to have carried out the attack.

Al Jazeera reporters said there was increased security along the border area following the attack. "The entire border area has been sealed with very heavy security on all the roads leading up to Sinai and not just the border area," Rageh said.

Meanwhile Al Jazeera's Cal Perry reported from Jerusalem that Egypt has indefinitely shut down the Rafah crossing on the border with the Gaza Strip. Rafah is the only crossing into Gaza not controlled by Israel.

Taher al-Nono, a Hamas spokesperson, meanwhile, said that the group was temporarily closing all tunnels along the border with Egypt immediately.

The Sinai is home to Egypt's Red Sea resorts, a source of lucrative tourist income, and is also where the country's Bedouin, who were long marginalised under the regime of fallen president Hosni Mubarak, are based.

"There was actually a warning out three days ago directed at Israeli civilians who vacation in the Sinai, warning against possible kidnapping attacks and threats from the Sinai," reported Al Jazeera's Perry.

"The Sinai is known [in Israel] as the 'wild west' [...] because really the lawlessness is out of control. There are drug runners, there are smugglers, and there's a lot of arms in the Sinai peninsula. Add to that the tunnel system from Gaza, and I think this is something that we'll be seeing the Israelis take action on in the next 24 hours."

The attack comes a month after armed men believed to be Islamist fighters shot dead two Egyptian soldiers in a dawn raid in north Sinai.

Before the July attack in Sheikh Zuwaid, a town roughly 15km west of the Gaza Strip, the fighters had distributed pamphlets calling on the army, brought in to restore security, to leave the lawless north of the peninsula.

The military sent tanks and soldiers into the region last year to quell Islamist fighters, after receiving permission from Israel. Under a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Egypt should have a limited military presence in the area.


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Gunmen attack Egypt-Gaza border checkpoint in Sinai, 16 guards killed

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EL-ARISH, Egypt — Masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers Sunday at a checkpoint along the border with Gaza and Israel, the first such attack on troops — and then the attackers drove off, crashing into Israel, officials said.

Egypt blamed Islamist militants from Gaza and Egypt's troubled Sinai Peninsula. President Mohammed Morsi said the attackers "will pay dearly."

The Israeli military said the attack was part of a plot to abduct an Israeli soldier, and two vehicles commandeered by the attackers crashed into Israel, where one blew up.

In a statement, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel's military and the internal security agency "thwarted an attack that could have injured many. The militants' attack methods again raise the need for determined Egyptian action to enforce security and prevent terror in the Sinai."

The attack took place around sunset in the Egyptian border town of Rafah, when the troops were having the traditional meal at the end of the daily fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Egyptian state TV said the attack on the checkpoint was carried out by Islamist militants. The report said 16 troops were killed in the attack coordinated between Palestinians who entered Egypt from Gaza and Egyptians in Sinai.

Emergency services official Ahmed el-Ansari told Egypt's news agency that seven were wounded by gunfire.

Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi convened an emergency meeting with military and security leaders following the attack. In a statement from the president's office, Morsi offered his condolences to the families of the dead and said the "cowardly" attack will not go "without a response."

"Those who carried out this crime will pay dearly," Morsi's statement said.

The head of the border guards, a paramilitary force under the command of Egypt's Defense Ministry, went to the scene of the attack, the TV said.

In a statement late Sunday, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood urged Egyptian authorities to take all necessary measures to "confront this serious challenge to the Egyptian sovereignty and to protect Sinai from all armed groups."

It was one of the bloodiest attacks in Sinai in years and the deadliest against Egyptian troops, underlining the growing lawlessness of the Egyptian territory, where security forces have become targets of militants, some loosely linked with al-Qaida.

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said one vehicle exploded, and Israeli aircraft struck the second one. Israeli government spokesman Ofir Gendelman said on his Twitter account that seven militants were killed, four on the Israeli side and three in Egypt.

Leibovich said Israeli soldiers were combing the area for other militants who might still be on the Israeli side of the border. The military instructed Israeli civilians to stay inside their homes.

An Egyptian military official said Egyptian troops were pursuing the militants who returned to Egypt. He said the attackers used three vehicles.

An Egyptian border official said the Rafah terminal between Egypt and Gaza has been closed indefinitely. It is the only crossing from Gaza that is not under direct Israeli control.

A former Egyptian intelligence officer close to the military, Sameh Seif el-Yazel, told state TV the attack began at another checkpoint inside Rafah, where the militants took the armored vehicles and headed toward the border checkpoint. He said the militants drove about 25 meters into Israel before Israeli troops attacked them. Some fled back into Egypt, he said.

Egyptian and Israeli officials have been warning of a deteriorating security situation in Sinai, where militants have taken advantage of a security vacuum in the area following the uprising that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak last year.

The security official said the attack set off clashes with the gunmen. He later said one of the armored vehicles was found abandoned near the border with Israel.

All the Egyptian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

In a statement posted on the website of Gaza's Hamas leaders, Hamas condemned "the ugly crime committed today against the Egyptian soldiers, and sent its condolences to the families of the victims, to Egypt's president and to his government." Hamas did not fix blame for the attack.

The attack caused confusion among the security agencies because of its surprise nature. It took place at a checkpoint near the border where Israel, Gaza and Egypt meet.

Late last week Israel issued one of its frequent warnings to Israelis to leave the Sinai.

Since Mubarak stepped down, Israel has allowed Egypt to send in more troops to Sinai, which has been mostly demilitarized according to the 1979 peace deal between the two countries. The Sunday attack spurred renewed calls in Egypt to amend the treaty to allow for more troops in Sinai.

A similar attack took place last year, when Palestinian militants crossed from Gaza into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, made their way along the Israel-Egypt border, crossed back into Israel, attacked Israeli vehicles and killed eight people on Aug. 18 last year. Israeli forces killed six Egyptians soldiers as they chased the militants, increasing tension between the two countries.

Relations between the two nations have always been cool. Since Mubarak was overthrown and Islamist parties moved to the front of the Egyptian political scene, Israeli officials have expressed concern about the possibility of deterioration in relations, while insisting that maintaining the peace treaty is in the interest of both countries.

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