EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian helicopters fired on a meeting of suspected militants 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 militants 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 in a post on his official Facebook page. He said 25 militants were targeted, but did not offer a breakdown of casualties.
The suspected militants 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 militants in the northern half of the peninsula. Militants and tribesmen have used the area for smuggling and other criminal activity for years. Militants 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 on Friday that a drone firing from the Israeli side of the border had killed five suspected militants 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 the Jewish state with suspicion.
In a statement late Saturday night, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said his country "appreciated" unspecified actions taken by Egypt against militants over the weekend. However, Yaalon did not deny Israel launched a drone attack Friday targeting militants inside of Egypt.
"Israel respects the full sovereignty of Egypt," Yaalon said. He said Israel is "aware of the Egyptian military's increased activity against terror infrastructures in the Sinai Peninsula" and praised the Egyptian military for "fighting first and foremost to protect Egypt's citizens and sovereignty."
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
On his Facebook page, Ali said the Egyptian army activity in Sinai is intended to be confidential and to "work in silence".
A little known militant group, Ansar Jerusalem, said four of its men died in Friday's drone strike and blamed the deaths on Israel. The discrepancy between their death toll and the one offered by Egyptian authorities could not be reconciled.
Associated Press writers Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.