Israel has shut border crossings between Egypt, Israel and Gaza after Islamic militants unleashed a wave of attacks on Egyptian army checkpoints in the Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 38 soldiers.
The coordinated assaults in Sinai came a day after Egypt’s president pledged to step up the battle against Islamic militants and two days after the country’s state prosecutor was assassinated in the capital, Cairo.
Israel’s defence ministry reacted by closing the Kerem Shalom crossing between the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt, and the Nitzana crossing, between Israel and Egypt.
According to BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) Israel approved reinforcements along the Israeli border as well.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rsaid, “Islamic State is not only across from the Golan Heights, it is also in Egypt, across from Rafah, in other words across from our borders … we are together with Egypt and many other states in the Middle East and the world in the struggle against extreme Islamic terrorism.”
Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland (ret.) outlined ‘real concern’ that the Jihadist fighting could spillover into Gaza – with the possibility of abduction and terrorism.
The scope and intensity of the attacks underscored the resilience and advanced planning by the militants who have for years battled Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai but intensified their insurgency over the past two years just as the government threw more resources into the drawn-out fight.
An Islamic State affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying its fighters targeted a total of 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two of which targeted checkpoints and one that hit an officers’ club in the nearby city of el-Arish.
The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified but it was posted on a Facebook page associated with the group.
Except for the attack at the officers’ club, the rest took place in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints, officials said.
The militants also took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armoured vehicles, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
At least 54 other soldiers were wounded, the officials said. As fighting raged, an army Apache gunship destroyed one of the armoured carriers captured by the militants as they were driving it away, the officials added.
Egypt’s military spokesman, Brig Gen Mohammed Samir, said clashes were still under way in the area between the armed forces and the militants.
The officials said scores of militants were besieging Sheikh Zuweid’s main police station, shelling it with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and exchanging fire with dozens of policemen inside.
Northern Sinai has over the past two years witnessed a series of complex and successful attacks targeting Egyptian security forces, many of which have been claimed by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.
The attacks came just two days after the assassination in Cairo of the country’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, and one day after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed to step up a two-year crackdown on militants.
Last week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called in an audio message on IS followers to launch massive attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is now entering its third week.
Militants in northern Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, have battled security forces for years but stepped up their attacks following the July 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi after days of mass street protests against his rule.