Egypt: Sinai campaign coordinated with Israel

Sep 08, 2012, 11:38 AM EDT
REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt said Saturday that it has coordinated an ongoing anti-terrorism offensive in the Sinai Peninsula with Israel, and that the campaign does not violate the two nations' peace treaty.

In the military's first news conference since the operation began five weeks ago, Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali also said Egyptian troops have killed 32 "criminals" and arrested 38 who included foreign drug traffickers.

The military launched the sweep following an Aug. 5 militant attack near the border with Israel and Gaza that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, the deadliest internal attack on Egyptian troops in recent history.

In terms of its size and the use of heavy weapons like tanks, the offensive is unprecedented in Sinai since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. A large swath of the peninsula's territory is demilitarized according to the 1979 peace treaty.

The Sinai has seen a security vacuum since the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak last year, and Islamist militant groups have used it to expand their presence.

Israel, which has long complained that militants were using Sinai as a base to stage cross-border attacks, had agreed to the deployment of extra troops in areas restricted by the treaty. It raised concerns about the tanks, however, and the U.S. asked Egypt to be transparent about its security operation.

Israel's defense minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio last week that Israel is asking Egyptian officials to coordinate all future military activity in the area and remove its forces once the offensive ends.

Ali said Egypt has consulted with Israel in accordance with the peace treaty requirements.

"There was coordination for the use of the armed forces in the whole of the Sinai operation," he said. "I think that there is the understanding that the military operation in Sinai is in the interest of all."

He reiterated Egypt's commitment to the 1979 peace treaty "without harming national interest."

Egyptian officials have used this and similar qualifiers repeatedly to describe the country's adherence to the treaty. For several years, Cairo has said it wants to see the treaty amended to allow the deployment of more troops. Israel has agreed to the temporary deployment of extra troops but is tepid to formal amendments to the treaty for fear of enshrining too much firepower on its border.

An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said there are ongoing communications between the two sides.

Ali said troops have also located and destroyed 31 tunnels along the border with Gaza, used for smuggling, and have seized weapons and vehicles used by criminals.

He said a second phase of the operation has begun on Aug. 31 and is still underway "to prepare to uproot criminal pockets (in Sinai) completely," he said. He did not provide further details.