Four Islamist militants were killed by a missile strike in Egypt’s North Sinai region on Friday, Egyptian security sources said.
Five security sources told Reuters the attack was carried out by Israeli forces. But the Egyptian armed forces officially denied that was the case and an Israeli army spokeswoman in Jerusalem declined to comment on the incident.
Egypt and Israel have cooperated in tackling the threat from Islamist militants in Sinai in the past and this case appeared unlikely to provoke a diplomatic row.
The Egyptian military said two explosions took place at a site 3 kilometers west of the border and south of the city of Rafah on Friday afternoon. Soldiers and specialist teams were searching the area to find out more, army spokesman Ahmad Ali said in a statement.
The security sources in Sinai told Reuters that an Israeli aircraft struck at the armed jihadis, killing four, after discovering they had planned to fire rockets into Occupied Palestine.
One source said that the Israeli aircraft had observed the militants preparing three rocket launchpads. It launched a missile, killing two men, then killed another pair who stepped up to the pads after the first strike.
But the Palestinian Ma’an news agency cited sources saying that the victims were traveling in two cars and a motorcycle in al-Arja village when they were killed.
However, an Egyptian army spokesman denied in a subsequent statement any Israeli role in the incident.
“It is not true, either in form nor substance, that there were any attacks from the Israeli side inside Egyptian territory,” he said.
“Likewise, the claim that there exists coordination between the Egyptian and the Israeli side in this matter is a matter completely void of truth.”
The Egyptian border was a red line that could not be violated, he said.
The targeted jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdess claimed Saturday that an Israeli drone was responsible for the attack, Ma’an reported.
The Sinai is largely demilitarized as part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 but Israel has approved troop reinforcements to combat militants and prevent weapons from entering the isolated Gaza Strip.
Militants based mainly in North Sinai near the border have escalated attacks on Egyptian security forces and other targets since July 3, when the army deposed Islamist President Mohammed Mursi and installed a new government.
Israel took the rare step of shutting its the Eilat airport near the Sinai peninsula for two hours on Thursday citing security concerns.
The desert peninsula has long been a security headache for Egypt. It borders the Gaza Strip and flanks the Suez Canal linking Asia to Europe. It is also home to nomad clans disaffected with rule from Cairo.
(Reuters, Ma’an, Al-Akhbar)