CAIRO, Egypt — A brazen attack by gunmen on the Israel-Egypt border Sunday, which killed 16 Egyptian border guards, has sharpened the debate over the ability of security forces to combat growing militancy in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula.
The assault, carried out by masked fighters wielding machine guns and hand grenades, included attackers hijacking two Egyptian army vehicles, which they then used to breach Egypt’s border with Israel. Israel’s air force, acting on prior intelligence, Israeli officials said, launched an airstrike on one of the vehicles, killing the militants inside. No Israelis were injured. The other vehicle was reported to have crashed and exploded at the Kerem Shalom crossing.
At least two others were wounded — some estimates put the number of wounded at seven — in an attack at the Rafah border crossing that was believed to be the work of Islamic militants. It remained unclear Monday if the militants were Egyptian or Palestinian fighters who had infiltrated Egypt through the fluid smuggling tunnels under the Gaza border.
The BBC reported that Israel said it had found the bodies of the eight of the gunmen, who were killed by the Israeli air force.
On Monday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi declared a three-day period of mourning for the dead soldiers and vowed to “retake control” of Sinai, which also shares a lawless border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Morsi and the Egyptian Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, arrived in the North Sinai capital Al-Arish on Monday afternoon.
Egypt’s army has struggled since the uprising in 2011 to reestablish a strong security presence in Sinai, where police were routed by marginalized Bedouins adamant to keep security forces at bay.
“There has been a certain kind of laxity among Egyptian security forces, both police and army, in Sinai,” Abdel Rahman Al Shourbagy, the head of Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party in North Sinai, told GlobalPost. “There are not enough personnel or weapons. I’ve received word there will be more army and more police relocating to Sinai to protect the borders.”
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According to the Associated Press, the Israeli military said that it had thwarted an attack meant for Israel — possibly to abduct a nearby Israeli border guard.
Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the attacks were a wake-up call for Egypt to beef up security in the region.
"The militants’ attack methods again raise the need for determined Egyptian action to enforce security and prevent terror in the Sinai” he said, according to the Washington Post.
The attack took place just as Egyptian soldiers were sitting down for iftar — a traditional meal eaten during Ramadan after the sun sets. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called for an emergency meeting with the military after the attacks.
The Associated Press reported that the attack was the bloodiest in the Sinai for years and may represent a growing lawlessness in the country post-revolution.
Although the incident is being blamed on Islamic militants, Al Ahram said that nobody has yet to take responsibility for the attacks.
Erin Cunningham contributed reporting from Cairo.