The Egyptian air force on Wednesday carried out airstrikes against suspected militant targets in the Sinai Peninsula after a border raid on Sunday left at least sixteen dead.
The airstrikes around the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, ten kilometers from the Gaza border, followed clashes overnight between militants and security forces at several checkpoints in the north of Sinai. Witnesses there saw two planes fly overhead.
An Egyptian military commander told the Reuters news agency that the army had also raided the village of al-Toumah, twenty kilometers further south, where they “killed twenty terrorists and destroyed three armored cars belonging to terrorists.” He added, “Operations are still ongoing.”
The Egyptian army offensive marks an escalation of the unrest in the peninsula. Militants on Sunday raided an Egyptian border outpost and subsequently stormed the Israeli border with a stolen armored vehicle where they were killed by Israeli guards.
Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak described the attack as a “wake up call for the Egyptians” and urged them to “take matters into their own hands.” Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi deployed helicopter gunships to the area on Monday and vowed, “The forces will impose full control over these areas of Sinai.”
Since President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February of last year, unrest in the area has increased. There have been more than a dozen attacks on the pipeline that carries Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan. Tourism in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh has faltered as a result of the violence. A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces said on Monday that the Sinai had become “a hothouse for world terrorism because of the weak control exercised” by the Egyptian government.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls neighboring Gaza, denied involvement in Sunday’s raid. The organization is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood which Morsi is a member of which could complicate Egyptian and Israeli military action against Islamic radicals in the Sinai who are sworn to destroy the Jewish state.
The peninsula is demilitarized as a condition of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The latter consented to Egypt sending in troops last year to impose order. With the exception of recent military offensives however, there has been no permanent security presence in the region.