Egypt says it has identified suspects in Sinai killings


Egypt has identified seven suspects, including one Egyptian, in the killing of 16 border guards last month that triggered the biggest security sweep along its frontier with Israel in decades, the interior minister said.

The attack on August 5, the worst since Egypt's 1973 war with its Jewish neighbor, underlined how lax policing in the region has emboldened Islamist militants to step up attacks on Egyptian security forces and the Israeli border.

Lawlessness in Sinai deepened after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year and his successor as president, Mohamed Mursi, has vowed to restore order.

“The security apparatus succeeded in identifying the perpetrators of the incident that killed Egyptian soldiers in Rafah,” Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal El-Din told state-owned al-Akhbar.

He told the daily newspaper that the Egyptian suspect belonged to a dormant local jihadi cell but did not mention the nationalities of the other suspects or say if any of the seven had been detained.

Gamal said security forces were still trying to root out members of “disparate” militant groups, some of whom espoused the “takfiri” doctrine, which sees modern society as godless and therefore to be avoided, or attacked.

A complex relationship between the hardline Islamist groups, security forces and local Bedouin tribes hostile to the Cairo government complicates efforts to pacify the region.

It also makes it harder to verify reports of the security mission in the isolated region and the local response.

Joint army-police raids on suspected militant hideouts began a few days after the attack, employing attack helicopters, armored vehicles and hundreds of troops.

The army says 11 militants have been killed and 23 arrested, 11 vehicles impounded and weapons seized including five boxes of Israeli-made ammunition.

The crackdown has the cautious approval of Israel which is alarmed by the increasing audacity of the Sinai militants. Analysts say some of them may have links to al Qaeda.

Reporting By Tamim Elyan, editing by Tim Pearce

Little sign of battle in Egypt’s Sinai region


Egypt poured troops into North Sinai on Thursday in an offensive meant to tackle militants in the Israeli border region, but residents were skeptical, saying they had seen no sign of anyone being killed in what they described as a “haphazard” operation.

The offensive is crucial to maintaining good relations with Israel, which fears Islamist militants based in the increasingly lawless desert region could link up with hardliners in neighboring Gaza to launch attacks on the Jewish state – potentially threatening a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

Army commanders said as many as 20 “terrorists” had died in the offensive launched after suspected Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday and drove a stolen armored car into Israel which was then destroyed by Israeli forces.

Hundreds of troops and dozens of military vehicles had reached al-Arish, the main administrative center in North Sinai, security sources said on Thursday.

Armored vehicles, some equipped with machine guns, could then be seen driving out of al-Arish towards the border settlement of Sheikh Zuwaid – which had been targeted by aircraft on Wednesday. The troops saluted passersby and flashed victory signs, or filmed their departure with video cameras.

But residents interviewed later in Shaikh Zuwaid and surrounding villages said they had seen no sign of fighting.

In al Toumah, a village surrounded by olive fields, one witness said he saw troops firing in the air.

“We thought they were chasing someone, but their arms were directed up and we didn’t see who they were fighting with,” the witness, who declined to be named, said. “We couldn’t find any bodies or signs of battle after they left.”

In Shaikh Zuwaid, controlled by Bedouin tribal leaders since police deserted the area last year, life continued as normal, its markets bustling. Witnesses reported a military presence on the outskirts, but no fighting since Wednesday’s air strikes.

CHALLENGE FOR NEW PRESIDENT

Lawlessness has been growing in North Sinai, a region awash with guns and bristling with resentment against Cairo, since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February last year.

On Thursday night, thousands of Egyptians protested in Cairo in an area where the funeral of the 16 soldiers killed in the border attack was held on Tuesday, demanding a tougher response to the killings.

“We want death to those who killed our martyrs in Rafah,” one banner said. The crowd closed down a main street, creating a huge traffic jam.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, elected in June, has vowed to restore stability in what the military has billed the biggest offensive in the region since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel.

He has also brushed aside accusations that his background in the Muslim Brotherhood, and ideological affinity with the Islamist Hamas rulers in Gaza, might lead him to take a softer line on militants bent on the destruction of Israel.

Israel has welcomed Egypt’s offensive while continuing to express worries about the deteriorating situation in Sinai, home to anti-Israel militants, Bedouin tribes angered by neglect by Cairo, gun-runners, drug smugglers and al Qaeda sympathizers.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Egypt was acting “to an extent and with a determination that I cannot previously recall”.

“Whether this ends with (their) regained control of Sinai and allows us not to worry as much as we have in the past few months, this I do not know,” he told Israel Radio.

In the region itself, all signs pointed to problems ahead.

In al-Arish, gunmen fired shots towards a police station early on Thursday before running off. That followed attacks on checkpoints in the town on Wednesday.

In al Toumah village, residents said troops had searched fields and raided one house, finding nothing.

Some residents complained the army’s limited actions so far – including Wednesday’s air strikes – seemed indiscriminate.

“We are not against attacking militants, but the pilots have to set their targets properly because we have been subjected to haphazard bombardment which led to the destruction of homes and cars,” said Mohamed Aqil in al-Goura village near Sheikh Zuwaid.

“They said they killed 20 militants, where are they? Show them to us,” said one resident at al Goura.

INTELLIGENCE CHIEF SACKED

Morsi on Wednesday fired the region’s governor and Egypt’s intelligence chief in response to public anger over the deaths of the 16 border guards, the deadliest assault on Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai since the 1973 war.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault which happened during the evening “iftar” meal which breaks the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

But with wide respect in Egypt for rank-and-file soldiers who are often poorly paid conscripts posted far from their families, public anger has focused on outgoing intelligence chief Mourad Mwafi.

Media outlets had quoted him as saying Egypt had been aware of a threat before the attack “but we never imagined that a Muslim would kill his Muslim brother at iftar”, he said.

Israel says militants based in Sinai and Palestinian hardliners in neighboring Gaza pose a growing threat to its border. It says Palestinians use illegal tunnels to smuggle in guns and travel across to join those on the Egyptian side.

Egypt began work to block the tunnels on Wednesday. It has also closed the Rafah border crossing, drawing an appeal from Ismail Nahiyeh, the head of the Hamas government, to reopen what he called “lifeline” for Gaza.

Residents in al-Arish welcomed the security sweep, seeing it as an opportunity to curb criminality among Bedouin, including those in Sheikh Zuwaid, where many make a living smuggling goods and people through more than 1,000 tunnels into Gaza.

“We want the army to return to the border,” said 45-year-old shopkeeper Hassan Mohamed. “The tunnels have destroyed the lives of people in al-Arish. We want them to hit the Bedouin hard.”

Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Sinai, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Maayan Lubell and Steven Scheer in Jerusalem; Writing by Myra MacDonald and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Michael Roddy

Egypt’s first Sinai air strike since ’73 war kills 20 terrorists


Egyptian troops have launched the largest operation in the Sinai desert peninsula since the 1972 war with Israel, killing at least 20 terrorists believed to be responsible for Sunday’s attack on an Egyptian border post that left 16 soldiers dead. Six of the attackers died when they drove across the Israeli border in a commandeered armored car and were hit by Israeli air missiles.

The attack has been seen as a reminder to both Israel and Egypt that despite cold relations bordering on frigid, the large Sinai Peninsula that borders both countries as well as Gaza, has the potential to destabilize the area. While no group has taken responsibility for the attack, both Egyptian and Israeli officials believe that Islamists are responsible.

Israeli officials say there has been intensive security cooperation with Egyptian officials since the incident began. The Israelis hope that the cooperation will serve to deepen ties with the new government headed by Mohamed Morsi. Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, won Egypt’s presidential elections earlier this year after Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down following mass protests. The Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed during Mubarak’s 30-year reign.

“This attack on Egyptian soldiers has shaken some strong beliefs and tenets of many Egyptians including the new politicians,” a senior Israeli official told The Media Line. “Most of them now understand that determined action needs to be taken in Sinai for the sake of Egyptian security and sovereignty, and not as a favor to Israel. Before our very eyes a new Egypt is emerging and this new Egypt needs to redefine its relations with Israel.”

At the same time, the new Egyptian government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamic religious, political and social movement, does not want to be seen as cozying up to the Israelis.

“Israel and Egypt share the same interests and this highlighted it,” Nadim Shehadi, an analyst at Chatham House told The Media Line. “It is a challenge to (Egyptian President) Mohamed Morsi and the army will require them to collaborate. They depend on each other.”

One of Morsi’s first acts in office was to assure the world that Egypt would abide by all of its international commitments including the historic 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Public opinion in Egypt is squarely against the treaty, one of only two that Israel has with Arab countries. The other country is Jordan.

Last year, dozens of angry Egyptians attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, and took six members of the embassy staff hostage. Egyptian commandos stormed the building after personal intervention by President Obama.

“The fundamental interest of Morsi and his movement is to freeze the close connections with Israel as much as possible,” Yoram Schweitzer, the director of the terror project at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv told The Media Line. “He can’t ignore the peace treaty but he wants a low key relationship. At the same time, he needs to cooperate with Israel to defeat the threat that is posed by Islamists against Israel and Egypt. The military and security establishments want close relations with Israel while the political echelon is doing it with a sour smile.”

It is also possible that the attack will exacerbate tensions within the Muslim Brotherhood between those who reject any cooperation with Israel and those who see it as a necessary evil.

Israel has long worried that the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty, has become a center for radical Islamist terrorists and smugglers. Weapons for Hamas in the Gaza Strip are routinely smuggled through the area. In the wake of the attack, Egypt stepped up its forces in Sinai but many in Israel expect more attacks.

“There’s still a threat to the borders and also to Israelis in the Sinai,” Colonel Avital Leibovich told The Media Line. “This is why we are deployed where we are and why we are building the border fence between Israel and Egypt.”

That fence, a steel barrier which will include cameras and radar, is due to be completed by the end of the year.

The attack is also raising questions about ties between Egypt and the Islamist Hamas, which controls Gaza. Egyptian officials have said that at least some of the attackers may have come from Gaza. Egypt had promised to open its border with Gaza and allow for greater freedom of movement for the 1.6 million Palestinians who live there. But after the attack, the border remained closed until future notice.

Egypt also pushed Hamas to shut down the smuggling tunnels that run from Egypt into Gaza. Hamas has allowed the hundreds of tunnels to function, creating an entire tunnel-based economy, bringing-in everything from weapons to car parts, charging taxes on goods coming through. Now, many tunnels have been shut down and prices in Gaza are starting to rise.

Barak calls Sinai attack, border infiltration a ‘wake-up call’ for Egypt


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called a terrorist attack in the Sinai that killed at least 15 Egyptian soldiers a “wake-up call” for Egypt.

“We hope this will be a fitting wake-up call for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands on their side more forcefully,” Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Aug. 6, a day after the attack.

Armed attackers in the Sinai Peninsula killed the soldiers at the Rafah security checkpoint before attempting to infiltrate the Israeli border.

The attackers, who Barak identified as members of the Global Jihadi terror group, also kidnapped several Egyptian soldiers on the evening of Aug. 5, according to reports. Two of the vehicles used in the attack then crossed the border into Israel. The first was blown up by the terrorists to breach the fence, and the second was targeted and hit by Israeli forces, according to the Israeli military.

The six terrorists in the vehicle were killed in the blast. Barak said they were all wearing suicide bomber belts.

Israeli intelligence had information on the planned attack, which allowed the military to have helicopters in the area to strike the vehicle, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman said Monday.

Israel and Egypt remained in close contact during the attack, Barak said, according to reports.

Barak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the area of the attack on Aug. 6. Netanyahu met with commanders and soldiers who were involved in the operation, and praised them for their actions. He also expressed regret over the killing of the Egyptian soldiers.

“I think that it is clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a quiet border,” Netanyahu said. “However, as has been made clear on numerous occasions, when it comes to the security of the citizens of Israel, the State of Israel must and can rely only on itself. Nobody can fulfill this role other than the IDF and the security services of the State of Israel, and this is how we will continue to act.”

Also on Aug. 6, Israel’s Foreign Ministry denied accusations by the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist party in Egypt that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency was behind the attack in an attempt to disrupt the new Islamist government of President Mohammed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood statement also reportedly called for a review of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, according to reports.

On Aug. 3, the U.S. Embassy in Israel called on American citizens to “take precautions” in traveling to the Sinai. The warning came a day after Israel’s National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau called on “all Israelis in the Sinai to leave the area immediately and return home.”

The embassy’s security message pointed out that there have been multiple kidnappings in the Sinai of U.S. citizens over the past four years and that kidnappings of foreign tourists in the Sinai have increased since January 2012.

U.S. government personnel are prohibited from traveling to the Sinai, except by air to Sharm el Sheik.

Israel ‘can only rely on itself,’ Netanyahu says after Sinai attack


Israel and Egypt have a common interest in keeping the border between them safe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday during a tour of the site of Sunday’s deadly attack in which Sinai-based gunmen killed at least 15 Egyptian police officers and injured at least seven.

Quoting Egyptian media sources, Israel Radio has since reported that the death toll had reached 17.

In the Sunday incident, the jihadist terrorists took control over an Egyptian checkpointand and commandeered two Egyptian armored vehicles with which they charged toward the border crossing with Israel. The vehicles were destroyed and the terrorists killed as they attempted to infiltrate the Israeli border.

The incident began around 8 p.m., when Israeli soldiers heard shooting coming from the Philadelphia Route, a narrow strip of land situated along the border between Gaza and Egypt. Five minutes later, Sinai terrorists took control of the Egyptian checkpoint, shot the soldiers and charged the commandeered vehicles toward the border, firing in all directions.

Around 8:10 p.m., one of the armored vehicles exploded at the border crossing, blowing a hole through the fence that allowed the other vehicle to cross into Israel. However, the second vehicle was quickly targeted from the air by waiting Israel Air Force aircraft, and was destroyed. Several terrorists were identified trying to flee from the burning vehicles, but they, too, were killed.

According to Israeli intelligence officials, the attack was orchestrated by a Salafi organization. Israeli intelligence services also had previous reports of an impending attack from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and were able to thwart the assault.

“We were prepared for it, so there was a hit,” IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said.

“I wish to express sorrow over the killing of the Egyptian soldiers,” Netanyahu said. “I think its clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a peaceful border between them. However, when it comes to the security of Israeli citizens, it seems time and again that Israel must and can only rely on itself.”

Egyptian army helicopters, with the help of army rangers, have since been attempting to apprehend suspects in the attack, an Egyptian security source reported Monday. An Egyptian source, speaking to Ahram Online, said that early on Monday army units surrounded the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Gaza border, to prevent suspects from escaping. A television journalist in the northern Sinai said the area had been sealed off by security forces, who blocked the road from the main town of Arish in the direction of the Gaza border crossing at Rafah. Egyptian state television reported that the Rafah border crossing would be sealed indefinitely.

The attack was the deadliest such event that Egypt’s tense Sinai border region has seen in decades. Earlier Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the Egyptian authorities to “wake up” and take decisive action to prevent terror activity in the lawless Sinai Peninsula. Addressing a parliamentary committee, Barak also praised the work of Israeli forces in thwarting the attack, saying, “vigilant IDF troops foiled an attack that could have produced many casualties.”

Israel has repeatedly complained about poor security in Sinai following the overthrow of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, last year. For the past year there has been growing lawlessness in the vast desert expanse, as Bedouin bandits, jihadists and Palestinian terrorists from the adjoining Gaza Strip fill the vacuum, tearing at already frayed relations between Egypt and Israel.

Former Deputy IDF Chief of General Staff and former GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel told Army Radio that, “Egypt either does not want or does not have the power to stop Islamist terror in Sinai.”

Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counterterrorism Bureau, also told Army Radio on Monday that the attack constituted a definite escalation by terrorist organizations. “There is no doubt that the perpetrators who carried out this attack took a huge risk in involving Egyptian security personnel,” he said.

Egyptian security had reportedly ignored Israeli warnings of an impending attack. Last week, an Egyptian security source accused Israeli travel agencies of being behind Israeli authorities’ warnings to Israeli tourists in Sinai, urging them to leave.

“It has become common in Israel for travel agencies to spread these rumors to keep Israeli tourists inside Israel instead of going to Sinai, which causes losses for these agencies,” the source told the German news agency DPA.

The terrorists were armed with explosives belts, guns, bombs and other weapons, and were apparently planning a large demonstration of power, the initial investigation into the incident suggested.

“Considering the explosives that the terrorists brought in the small vehicle that exploded at the start, and the explosives belts fitted on six or eight terrorists inside that armored vehicle, there is no doubt that their entry into an Israeli town or a military base by surprise could have incurred extensive damage,” Barak said.

“This was an extremely successful joint operation of the IAF and Armored Corps. The speed of the cooperation between the various forces enabled us to thwart a terror attack within 15 minutes, according to the assessments. I would like to express my appreciation for the troops’ vigilance, specifically that of the intelligence personnel, and the determination of the soldiers operating in the field,” said IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

Meanwhile, an initial investigation into the incident revealed that the second vehicle had penetrated a full 2 kilometers into Israeli territory before it was destroyed, and that military troops had pursued the vehicle at high speed, complete with gunfire, on a civilian road alongside civilian vehicles.

In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi addressed his nation on television shortly after the attack, following an emergency meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo, and declared that the perpetrators of the attack would “pay a high price.”

“What happened [Sunday] is a criminal attack by our enemies upon our sons from the armed forces at a border point, the sons of whom were martyred at that place, while they were taking part in a fast-breaking Ramadan meal. These martyrs’ blood will not be shed in vain,” he said. “My deepest condolences go out to the families of these martyrs, and our condolences to the Egyptian people.”

The attack was an early diplomatic test for Morsi, an Islamist who assumed office at the end of June after staunch U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year in a popular uprising. The attack may also complicate Egypt’s relations with Hamas, the Islamist party that rules the Gaza Strip and is close to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, if it emerges that Palestinian gunmen were involved.

In a statement posted on the website of Gaza’s Hamas leaders, Hamas also 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.”

Israel on alert for attack as Netanyahu vows to strike Gaza terrorists


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel remains on alert against an attack from Sinai despite killing the terrorist leader that was planning an attack from there—an assassination that has led to a barrage of rockets raining down on southern Israel from Gaza by terrorist groups.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that the Israeli military’s targeted killing two days earlier of Zuhir Mussah Ahmed Kaisi, the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committee terrorist organization, disrupted the organizing of the attack. Rocket attacks from Gaza by the PRC and Islamic Jihad have continued into Sunday.

The prime minister commended the security and intelligence services in the airstrike that killed Kaisi and another member of the Popular Resistance Committee. The Israel Defense Forces said the two were planning a terror attack that was to take place from Sinai in the coming days.

“We have exacted from them a very high price,” he said. “Naturally we will act as necessary.”

More than 130 rockets have rained down on southern Israel since the killings, injuring eight Israeli civilians, including one severely, according to the IDF. At least 17 Palestinians, including a 14-year-old, have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Netanyahu praised the Iron Dome missile defense system, which according to the IDF has intercepted 90 percent of its targets, including 28 out of 31 long-range Grad rockets targeting major Israeli cities such as Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon.

“We will do everything in our power to expand the deployment of this system” in the months and years ahead, he said.

Netanyahu also lauded the residents of the southern Israeli communities for their resilience in the face of the rocket barrage.

“In the end, the strongest force at our disposal is the fortitude of the residents, of the council heads, of Israelis and of the government,” he said. “We are taking the necessary defensive and aggressive measures, and I have no doubt that with this combination, along with the necessary fortitude, we will overcome these terrorist threats around us.”

Netanyahu delivered a similar message Saturday night in a meeting with the mayors of southern Israeli communities. He vowed to continue hitting Palestinian forces in Gaza responsible for the barrage of rocket attacks.

The IDF Home Front Command ordered schools closed Sunday in cities and towns located up to 25 miles from the Gaza border, affecting about 200,000 children. Classes at colleges and universities in the area also were closed.

Since the violence began, the IDF as of Sunday afternoon had struck 21 targets in Gaza, including 13 airstrikes to halt rocket-launching attempts and eight attacks against weapons factories and storage sites.

The United States said it was “deeply concerned by the renewed violence in southern Israel,” U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said in a statement issued Saturday. “We condemn in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza by terrorists into southern Israel in recent days, which has dramatically and dangerously escalated in the past day. We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these cowardly acts.”

“We regret the loss of life and injuries, and we call on both sides to make every effort to restore calm,” the statement concluded.

Egypt’s ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Othman, told the Palestinian Ma’an news agency Sunday that Egypt was working to halt the escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel. He said his country was in contact with both sides in an attempt to stop the violence in order to “to avoid undesirable developments.”

Othman called Israel’s offensive “unjustifiable and a breach to the truce sponsored by Egypt.”

The Popular Resistance Committees promised revenge for Kaisi’s assassination.

“All options are open before the fighters to respond to this despicable crime,” said Abu Attiya, a PRC spokesman. “The assassination of our chief will not end our resistance.”

It is believed that the short-range rockets are being launched by the Popular Resistance Committee, according to the IDF, while the long-range and midrange rockets are being launched by Islamic Jihad.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaina said that “Israel’s escalation creates a negative atmosphere and increases the tension, which leads to the increase in violence in the region,” according to CNN.

The IDF issued a statement saying it holds “Hamas responsible for the recent incidents since the terror organization currently has jurisdiction in the area [Gaza].”

The statement said that “The Hamas movement, although not the one performing the launchings, is not doing anything to prevent it either.”

Egyptian gas pipeline to Israel attacked for sixth time


A pipeline that carries gas from Egypt to Israel was attacked for the sixth time in less than a year.

Three men fired on the pipeline at a pumping station in the northern Sinai on Tuesday morning, according to reports. The pipeline, which also serves Jordan then exploded.

It was not immediately known what affect the explosion would have on gas supplies to Israel and Jordan. Israel has not been receiving gas from Egypt since the pipeline was last attacked in July.

Egypt supplies Israel with more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs to produce electricity; electricity prices have risen by more than 10 percent in Israel since the attacks began.

The first attack on the pipeline came in February during the uprisings against deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In July, machine-gun toting men overtook guards before blowing up a station in the Sinai.

Selling gas to Israel has been unpopular on the Egyptian street since the opening of the pipeline in 2008. Mubarak has been accused of giving Israel a sweetheart deal on the gas, since Egypt lost more than $714 million on the pact.