Egyptian helicopters fired on a meeting of suspected terrorists in the country’s Sinai Peninsula, officials said Sunday, killing at least 12 people as authorities stepped up their attacks following an Israeli drone strike in the region.
The helicopter attack came as Egyptian and Israeli officials tried to downplay the drone strike Friday in the largely lawless Sinai, fearing popular criticism in a country already roiled by last month’s military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
The Egyptian officials told The Associated Press that three helicopters targeted terrorists in the desert town of Sheik Zuweyid late Saturday. The officials said another dozen were wounded in the attack.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali later confirmed the attack. He said 25 terrorists were targeted, but did not offer a breakdown of casualties.
The suspected terrorists targeted in the air assault were wanted for an attack on Egyptian soldiers last year that killed 16, Ali said. They also were wanted in connection to the abduction of seven security forces earlier this year, he said.
A resident of Sheik Zuweyid told the AP that he saw the helicopter attack start Saturday night. On Sunday, he said neighbors saw two funerals for slain fighters, one with four bodies and one with two. Mobile phone service also had been disrupted as the operation took place, he said.
The resident spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
Egypt’s military and security forces have been engaged in a long battle against terrorists in the northern half of the peninsula. Terrorists and tribesmen have used the area for smuggling and other criminal activity for years. Terrorists have fired rockets into Israel and staged other cross-border attacks there on previous occasions.
Attacks against security personnel have intensified in the region following the popularly supported July 3 coup that ousted Morsi.
On Friday, Egyptian security officials told the AP that a drone firing from the Israeli side of the border had killed five suspected terrorists preparing to fire rockets at Israel. The site of the strike was about five kilometers (three miles) inside Egypt. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief journalists.
Israel has maintained official silence about the strike, likely out of concerns about exposing Egypt’s military to domestic public backlash. Egypt’s government celebrates its battles fought against Israel over Sinai. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but many still view Israel with suspicion.
In a statement late Saturday night, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said his country “appreciated” unspecified actions taken by Egypt against terrorists over the weekend.