CAIRO (Reuters) - An Islamist militant group operating in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that borders Israel has warned the Egyptian army that a military crackdown in the area would force it to fight back.
The army has been hunting militants in the Sinai desert since an attack last week on Egyptian border guards that killed 16 soldiers. Egypt blamed the attack on Islamist militants.
The army operation is the biggest in almost three decades in the tense border region where troop and army vehicle movements are strictly limited under the terms of Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
"We have never raised our weapons against the Egyptian army," the Salafi Jihadi, one of the biggest militant groups in the Sinai, said in a statement late on Wednesday. "So stop the bloodshed or else you will be dragging us into a battle that is not ours," the group said, addressing the Egyptian army.
The group, one of several operating in Sinai, denied involvement in the attack on Egyptian border guards and said its true fight was with the "Zionist enemy" Israel.
Security officials said 20 militants were killed by the Egyptian army on the first day of the Sinai sweep on August 8.
The conflict is an early test for President Mohamed Mursi - elected in June following the overthrow last year of Hosni Mubarak - to prove he can rein in militants on the border with Israel.
Moderates fear militant Salafists in Gaza and Sinai are joining forces, creating an environment ripe for al Qaeda were it to seek a base to use against Israel or the political Islam of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, where Mursi has his ideological roots.
Two explosions shook the southern Israeli city of Eilat, near Egypt, late on Wednesday. The Israeli military said it suspected the explosions were a cross-border rocket attack although their searches did not provide any evidence.
Another militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes, claimed responsibility on Thursday, saying it "launched two Grad rockets on Umm al-Rashrash city (Eilat) on Wednesday night".
The Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes (The Followers of Jerusalem) last month claimed responsibility for attacks on Sinai's gas pipeline that delivers gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan.
Disorder has spread in North Sinai, a region with many guns and much resentment over neglect by Cairo. Bedouin tribes now control some areas that were cleared by Egyptian police during last year's uprising against Mubarak, who had worked closely with Israel to secure the border region.
Mursi, who took office in June, has promised to restore stability.
(Reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Editing by Alison Williams)