As many as 16 Egyptian police officers were killed Sunday when militants stormed a police post near the border with Israel and hijacked two armored vehicles in a brazen attack against security forces in the increasingly lawless north Sinai peninsula.
The assault, which wounded at least seven police officers and border patrolmen, came around dusk when gunmen rushed an outpost after officers had broken their Ramadan fast. The Israeli army said militants stole two armored vehicles and began driving toward the Israeli border.
One of the vehicles, which may have been used as a suicide bomb, exploded before it entered Israel. The second vehicle was targeted by an Israeli airstrike. Some militants escaped the wreckage and were rounded up by Israeli forces. It was not clear how many gunmen were killed or wounded.
The nationality of the attackers was not immediately disclosed but in recent months north Sinai has become a recruiting ground for Palestinian militants connected to Hamas and other radical groups in the Gaza Strip. Hamas denied involvement in the ambush and said in a statement that it “condemns the ugly crime” against Egyptian forces.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi called for an emergency meeting with the military, and state TV reported that the Rafah border crossing would be closed indefinitely. “Tonight’s attack in Sinai will not go without a response,” a Morsi spokesman said.
A security vacuum in the region -- notorious for weapons, drugs and human trafficking -- has deepened since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in last year’s Egyptian uprising. Ambushes on police and more than 15 bombings along a natural gas pipeline supplying Israel prompted the Egyptian army to bolster its forces in the Sinai.
U.S. and Israeli officials have grown concerned that unrest in the peninsula could jeopardize the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty, which led to the return of the Sinai to Egypt after 15 years of Israeli control. A Sinai militant group, which included at least one extremist from Saudi Arabia, released a video last week claiming responsibility for a June attack along the border that killed one Israeli soldier.
One of the militants read a statement: “To the enemies of God, the Jews. Know, infidels, that what is coming is different than what has passed. The time of negotiations and middle ground solutions is over.”
Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai have said that even with a stronger Egyptian military presence, security remains tenuous. They said some younger tribesmen, angry over years of marginalization and a lack of jobs, have been drawn to the rhetoric of militants.
“It doesn’t make sense for a country the size of Egypt to leave a whole region without security,” said Arafat Khedr Soliman, a tribal leader near Rafah. “The land is becoming a breeding ground for radicals.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that Israeli forces “thwarted an attack that could have injured many.”
Times staff writers Fleishman reported from Cairo and Sanders from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.