By MAAMOUN YOUSSEF
FILE – In this March 7, 2007, file photo, the Israeli army Heron TP drone, also known locally as the Eitan, flies during a display at the Palmahim Air Force Base in Palmahim, Israel. Egyptian security officials said Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, an Israeli drone fired a missile in the northern Sinai peninsula, killing several suspected Islamic militants and destroying a rocket launcher. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)
CAIRO (AP) — A shadowy al-Qaida-inspired group active in the Sinai Peninsula said Saturday that its fighters were the target of a reported Israeli drone strike into Egyptian territory, a rare operation that could indicate increased Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation against militants in the lawless border zone.
Ansar Jerusalem said in a statement posted on a militant website that a drone crossed into Egyptian airspace Friday and killed four fighters as they were preparing a cross-border rocket strike into Israel. It said the dead were from Egyptian Sinai tribes and that the rocket squad’s leader escaped.
Egyptian security officials, speaking anonymously on Friday, said that a drone firing from the Israeli side of the border had killed five suspected militants.
The conflicting accounts could not be reconciled. Both said the site of the strike was about in the Sinai five kilometers (three miles) inside Egypt.
Israel has maintained official silence about the strike, suggesting that if the Jewish state was involved, it might be trying to avoid embarrassing the Egyptian military. An Egyptian military spokesman later denied the report but did not provide another cause for the explosion.
The strike could signal a significant new level of security cooperation between Egypt and Israel following the military coup that ousted Egypt’s president, Mohammed Morsi, last month. The military has alleged that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement had turned a blind eye to Islamic militants in the Sinai.
The militant statement said that there was Egyptian air activity in the area but after the Egyptian aircraft withdrew, the Israeli drone attacked. A tribal leader in the area said that an Egyptian helicopter flew over the site a few minutes after the drone strike.
The Egyptian security officials said the Israeli attack was launched in cooperation with Egyptian authorities, despite Cairo’s past insistence that the government would not allow anyone else to use its territories to launch attacks against jihadi groups.
Egypt’s military and security forces have long been engaged in a battle against Islamic militants in the northern half of the peninsula. Militants and tribesmen also have been engaged in smuggling and other criminal activity in the area for years.
Militants have also fired rockets into Israel and staged other cross-border attacks on previous occasions.
The statement said two of the dead were from the el-Menaie family of the Sawarka tribe, and they lived in al-Mahdiya village. The security officials had said four of the dead were el-Menaies.
The group denounced the Egyptian military for allegedly having allowed the attack. “What is greater treason than the Egyptian army allowing the Zionist drones to violate Egyptian airspace now and then?” it said.
Ansar Jerusalem has previously claimed responsibility for a 2012 shootout along the Israeli-Egyptian border in which three militants and an Israeli soldier were killed.