AL-ARISH, EGYPT (Reuters) - Egypt launched air strikes in the Sinai region close to the border with Israel on Wednesday, killing more than 20 suspected Islamic militants, the state-run Ahram news website said.
The air strikes on positions in the town of Sheikh Zouaid followed the deaths of 16 border guards last Sunday in an attack blamed partly on Palestinian militants.
Witnesses in Sheikh Zouaid, about 10 km (six miles) from Gaza, said they saw two military jets and heard sounds of explosions. Other witnesses in a nearby area said they saw three cars hit.
The strikes following clashes between armed men and security forces at several security checkpoints in the Sinai region.
Armed men opened fire on several checkpoints in Arish and in the nearby town of Rafah on the border with Israel, according to a Reuters reporter and state media.
A Reuters reporter said one policeman and one resident had been confirmed wounded in these attacks.
Lawlessness in the rugged desert region bordering Israel has spread since the fall of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in an uprising 18 months ago and the election of an Islamist successor whose commitment to security cooperation with the Jewish state has yet to be tested.
One of the checkpoints attacked on Wednesday has been attacked 28 times since the uprising, the state-funded Middle East News Agency said.
A few hours after the eruption of the clashes, hundreds of protesters gathered in Arish demanding state protection and chanting "God is Great."
Security forces closed Arish's main highway shortly after the start of the attacks.
Earlier on Tuesday, crowds of angry mourners wept at the military funeral in Cairo of the 16 guards killed in what was the deadliest assault in decades along Egypt's tense Sinai Peninsula border with Israel and Gaza.
In reaction to Sunday's attacks, Egypt began to seal off smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip, a security source said.
A Reuters reporter in Rafah said heavy equipment was brought to the Egyptian side of the tunnels, which are used to smuggle people to and from Gaza as well as scarce food and fuel for the small territory's population.
(Reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Al-Arish and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Writing by Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Editing by David Brunnstrom)