Masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian guards Sunday at a security checkpoint along the border with Gaza and Israel, attacking with automatic rifles and weapons mounted on their vehicles, a security official said.
Officials from Egypt have blamed Islamist militants from Gaza and Egypt's troubled Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi said in a statement that "this cowardly attack will not go without a response ... and that those who committed this crime will pay it 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 Rafah, when the troops were having the traditional meal at the end of the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Egyptian state TV said the attack on the checkpoint was carried out by Islamist militants. It quoted a security official who said 13 troops were killed in the attack coordinated between Palestinians who entered Egypt from Gaza and Egyptians in Sinai.
An Egyptian security source told state news agency MENA that the Rafah border crossing with Gaza has now been closed indefinitely. “A security official announced on Sunday evening that the Rafah land port had been closed for cases of travel and arrivals indefinitely. This comes in the wake of the attack by gunmen on a border checkpoint in Rafah in Sinai,” MENA said.
It was one of the bloodiest attacks in Sinai in years, underlining the growing lawlessness of the Egyptian territory, where security forces have become targets of militants, some loosely linked with al-Qaeda.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said one vehicle exploded, and Israeli aircraft struck the second one, killing an unspecified number of militants trying to escape. Israeli government spokesman Ofir Gendelman said seven militants were killed, four on the Israeli side and three in Egypt.
She 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.
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 in the seized car drove about 25 meters into Israel before Israeli troops attacked them. Some fled back into Egypt, he said.
Egyptian 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. Besides the 15 dead, seven other guards were injured in the attack.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
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.
Since Mr. 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.
Relations between the two countries have always been cool. After 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.
With a report from the Associated Press.