CAIRO (AP) — Dozens of suspected militants openly joined a mass funeral procession Saturday for four slain Egyptian insurgents killed in an Israeli drone strike in the Sinai Peninsula, as Egyptian security forces watched them pass by.
A little known militant group, Ansar Jerusalem, said its men were the target of the drone strike in Egyptian territory that killed the four militants preparing to fire rockets into Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt's military claimed that one of its helicopters carried out the strike, seeking to limit public criticism about allowing Israel to carry out strikes on its soil.
By nightfall, security officials told The Associated Press that two Egyptian helicopters fired at a gathering of militants near the desert town of Sheik Zuweyid in the northern part of the peninsula. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said that four militants were killed and at least seven wounded.
The AP could not immediately reach area residents because it appeared that mobile phone service was disrupted temporarily, a security tactic used in past military operations in Sinai.
The attack a day earlier by the Israeli drone was a rare operation that could indicate increased cooperation between Egypt and Israel against militants in northern Sinai after a coup ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last month. It also is likely to increase tensions in a border region that has seen other rocket attacks in the past.
Hundreds of people, including armed jihadis, tribesmen carrying weapons and family members of the dead took part in the funeral. The bodies of the dead were displayed in the back of pickup trucks draped by black flags inscribed with Islamic verses. The flags are often used by al-Qaida militants, but also by Islamists. Some in the procession chanted slogans against Israel and Egypt's army.
The procession passed through checkpoints peacefully, even though many who were present likely are the same fighters carrying out near-daily attacks on security forces in Sinai. Security officials said the nature of the attack made it difficult to stop the procession out for fear of inflaming an already volatile situation. They also said checkpoints in the area were manned by just a handful of personnel ill-equipped to take on such a large group, which also included a number of locals.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to journalists.
In its statement, Ansar Jerusalem denounced the Egyptian military for having allowed the Israeli attack.
"What is greater treason than the Egyptian army allowing the Zionist drones to violate Egyptian airspace now and then?" it said.
The statement's authenticity could not be confirmed, but it was posted on a website commonly used by militant groups.
Egyptian security officials told the AP on Friday that a drone firing from the Israeli side of the border had killed five suspected militants. 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, perhaps out of concerns about exposing Egypt's military to domestic public backlash. Egypt's government celebrates its battles fought against Israel over Sinai.
On Saturday, Egypt's state media quoted an anonymous senior security official saying the strike against the militants had been carried out by Egyptian helicopters. The reports also claimed the militants had been preparing to fire on Egyptian targets rather than Israel, possibly so as to not be seen defending Israeli interests. The military spokesman also released statements denying that Israel carried out any attacks.
Insurgents, who have close ties to Palestinian militants in the neighboring Gaza Strip, have stepped up attacks on police and military targets in the northern part of Sinai since the July 3 coup that toppled Morsi. Some residents of Sinai have alleged that Morsi did not clamp down hard enough on militants during his year in office out of concerns it would anger some of his supporters.
Egypt's military and security forces have long been engaged in a battle against militants in the northern half of the peninsula. Militants and tribesmen have been engaged in smuggling and other criminal activity in the area for years. Militants have fired rockets into Israel and staged other cross-border attacks there on previous occasions.
Ansar Jerusalem has claimed Israel attacked them in Egypt in the past. Late last year, the group released a video about a militant who was killed in August in a strike that Egyptian officials said may have been carried out by Israel. In the video, a Bedouin confesses to working as a spy for Israel for $3,000 a month and to placing an electronic chip on the man's motorcycle. He also said that Israeli intelligence officers crossed into Sinai several times and planted a bomb on the road leading to the man's home.
The video then showed images of the Bedouin's severed head.
Associated Press writers Ashraf Sweilam in el-Arish, Egypt, and Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.