Deadly violence on border: Israel slams Egypt over lax security in Sinai
A group of militants who sneaked across the Egyptian border killed an Israeli civilian on Monday, sparking a firefight which left at least two gunmen dead, the military said.
And following more than six hours of searches, the army said it had ruled out the possibility any gunmen were still on the loose inside southern Israel as initially feared.
The deadly border incident, which mirrored a similar attack in August 2011 in which a cell of gunmen from Sinai staged a series of deadly ambushes on southern Israel, killing eight, sparked sharp condemnation from Israel which urged Egypt to "take responsibility" for the situation in Sinai.
"We see here a disturbing deterioration in Egyptian control in the Sinai," said Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak of the attack which took place just hours after the final round of voting in Egypt's presidential election ended.
"We are waiting for the results of the election. Whoever wins, we expect them to take responsibility for all of Egypt's international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel and the security arrangements in the Sinai, swiftly putting an end to these attacks."
Israeli military officials said the ambush began around 6:00 am (0300 GMT) when a group of at least three gunmen sneaked across the border and attacked two vehicles taking a group of Israeli construction workers to a site where they are building part of the vast fence along the frontier.
The attack, which took place on a civilian road in Nahal Lavan, an area several kilometres (miles) from the border, saw militants detonating explosive devices, using Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told reporters.
"The RPG didn't hit the cars but what did was the explosive device and the light (rifle) fire. One the vehicles was hit by this fire and turned over into a nearby ditch," killing one of the construction workers, she said.
Defence ministry officials identified the Israeli construction worker as Said Fashafsheh, an Arab Israeli from the northern port city of Haifa.
Troops arrived at the scene "within minutes" and began firing at the gunmen, sparking a massive explosion caused by an explosive belt worn by one of the attackers, Leibovich said.
"We also found that they carried with them camouflage uniforms, flack jackets, helmets, grenades and kalashnikovs," she added, without identifying the nature of the clothing, although it was not believed to be Egyptian military fatigues.
"The gear that they had was similar to that carried by the terror squad back in August," she said.
There was no immediate information about the identity of the gunmen, and Leibovich said there was a "high likelihood that some of the squad remained on the Egyptian side" of the border.
Asked about possible involvement of groups from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Leibovich said it was a possibility which was being examined.
Several hours after the ambush, Israel carried out an air strike on northern Gaza, killing two Palestinians who were identified by local witnesses as members of the radical Islamic Jihad movement.
But military sources insisted the strike was not connected to the bloodshed on the Egyptian border.
The final toll from the border incident was yet to be confirmed, with the military saying at least two gunmen were killed but were checking whether a third had also died when his fellow militant detonated the suicide belt, or whether he had fled back to Egypt.
The border incident came just 48 hours after a rocket fired from Sinai landed near the Negev desert town of Mitzpe Ramon and a second landed near Ovda, the site of a small airport used by civilian and military flights, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Eilat.
In early April, militants in Sinai fired a Grad rocket which exploded near Eilat without causing casualties, with another unexploded rocket later found in the same area.
In the wake of the August 2011 attack, which also involved gunmen infiltrating Israel from Sinai, Israeli troops inadvertently shot dead five Egyptian policemen, sparking a diplomatic crisis with Cairo.
The attack spurred Israel to double the pace of construction of its vast border fence, which is largely finished although it has yet to be completed in several areas in the northernmost and southernmost sectors of the frontier.
Since the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the Sinai has been swept by a wave of militant unrest, stoking deep fears in Israel which shares a 240-kilometre (150-mile) border with the Egyptian peninsula.