Egypt’s newly elected Islamist president on Sunday held an urgent meeting with his country's military council after more than a dozen soldiers were killed in an attack by suspected extremist “jihadists” in the Sinai desert region.
President Mohamed Mursi had called for the meeting after at least 15 Egyptian soldiers were killed and 10 were wounded in the ambush by gunmen at a security checkpoint in Rafah, a city in North Sinai near the border to the Gaza Strip.
The gunmen were driving four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles when they attacked the troops, witnesses said. Egyptian state television reported the attackers were “jihadists.”
The gunmen took control of two Egyptian armored vehicles and exploded one of them, reported Ahmad Bagato, Al Arabiya correspondent.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli army said a "group of terrorists" had attacked the border post, Reuters reported. The Israeli air force had targeted one vehicle that tried to infiltrate Israel, while a second vehicle had exploded at the border crossing, she said.
A television journalist based in North Sinai said the area was sealed off by security forces, blocking the road from the main town of al-Arish in the direction of the Gaza border crossing at Rafah.
Egypt has ordered the closure of the Rafah Gaza border crossing after the attack. Gaza Strip's Hamas condemned the killing of the Egyptian troops.
Earlier on Sunday, an Israeli air strike killed a Palestinian gunman from a radical Islamist group and wounded another as they rode a motorbike in southern Gaza near the Egyptian border.
It was not immediately possible to confirm whether the two incidents were linked.
The gunmen carried out their attack at Iftar time, when soldiers were busy breaking their Ramadan fast.
“It seems the attack was sudden and well-coordinated, using heavy arms,” Al Arabiya's Bagato said.
Israeli army spokesman Afihai Adra'ei told Al Arbiya that attack was likely bigger than it appears.
He said Karam Abu Salem border crossing, located southeast of Gaza Strip, appeared to be the target.
He said the Israeli air force targeted one vehicle that tried to infiltrate Israel and that a second vehicle exploded at the border crossing.
Experts say that militant groups in Sinai aren’t directly affiliated to al-Qaeda but are seeking to be so.
Since the overthrow of U.S.-aligned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February last year, security has loosened over Sinai and groups of militant Islamists have spread across its northern part, attacking police stations and a pipeline exporting gas to Israel and Jordan.
The desert border between Israel and Egypt was relatively quiet for decades after the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979. But Israel says that since the fall of Mubarak, Cairo has lost its grip on the Sinai.
In April, Israel said a rocket fired from the Sinai hit the resort of Eilat, causing no injuries, while last August cross-border infiltrators shot dead eight Israelis. Israeli soldiers repelling the attack accidentally killed five Egyptian guards.