Egyptian military gunships cross into Sinai, kill 20 militants

Cairo: For the first time since the Yom Kippur war of 1973, Egyptian military helicopter gunships today crossed into the Sinai, firing missiles to kill 20 militants in raids that signal Cairo`s decisive confrontation to wipe out jihadists suspected to be massed there.

The military said it deployed Apache helicopter gunships in the strikes that killed 20 terrorists in the Sinai village of Tumah near the town of Sheikh Zouaid, the state-run MENA news agency reported.

The pre-dawn raids were apparently in response to deadly attacks on Sunday by militants on a border check post, killing 16 soldiers. The air raids marked for the first time in decades that Egyptian military crossed into Sinai, which was declared a de-militiarised zone after the last Arab-Israel war.

Gunships went into action, after army had massed heavy forces close to the Sinai peninsula in anticipation of a major crackdown on the militants.

"Our forces have entered the village of al-Toumah killing 20 terrorists and have destroyed three armoured cars belonging to the terrorists," an army spokesman said, adding "operations are still on going."

The military action followed fresh clashes between armed men and security forces at several security check points overnight in the Sinai region.

Official said armed men believed to be jihadists fired on checkpoints in al-Arish and in the nearby town of Rafah on the border with Gaza, injuring seven people, including two police officers.

Heavy exchange of fire continued late into the night, state-run MENA said. The army closed the roads leading to areas where firing was going on.
Lawlessness in the rugged desert region bordering Israel has spread since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in an uprising 18 months ago and the political instability that followed.

Egypt and Israel say both Islamist fighters from the Sinai and Palestinian allies in the Hamas dominated Gaza Strip are active in Northern Sinai, attacking both Egyptian security forces and staging raids across the border into Israel.

The confrontation between army and the militants poses a major challenge to the new Islamist President Mohammad Mursi, whose Muslim Brotherhood party has good relations with the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip.

The Egyptian military strikes came a day after the military held a funeral for the 16 soldiers killed in Sunday`s attack.

Mursi did not attend the funeral, where some protesters chanted slogans against the Brotherhood and even heckled Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.