CAIRO -- Egyptian troops and helicopter gunships killed about 20 suspected Islamic extremists Wednesday after militants ambushed a string of army checkpoints overnight in the northern Sinai peninsula near the Israeli border, according to the government.
The state news agency reported that soldiers and airstrikes -- the first by Egyptian forces in the Sinai since the 1970s -- targeted "terrorist hotbeds" in El Arish and around the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip. The offensive suggested that Cairo was moving to restore stability to the lawless desert region that is integral to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
There was no independent confirmation of casualties or additional details on the clashes. One area hospital said it had received no wounded and no bodies.
[Updated Aug. 8, 1:10 p.m.: The deterioration of security on the peninsula prompted Morsi to fire Egypt’s intelligence chief and the governor of North Sinai. The shake-up also included Morsi asking Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to dismiss the commander of the nation’s military police, which has been criticized for human rights violations and crackdowns on democracy activists.]
The Egyptian government said a joint police-military operation would "regain control" over militants who have grown bolder amid a terrain of arms traffickers and people smugglers. An attack Sunday by 35 masked gunmen on an outpost killed 16 Egyptian border guards. The militants hijacked two vehicles and drove them toward the border, where one was blown up apparently by suicide bombers and the other was hit by an Israeli missile.
The Sinai's growing unrest has troubled the U.S. and Israel, which have urged Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, and the military to stem extremism. The matter has also highlighted the rancor in Egyptian politics: Secularists blame Morsi, a conservative Islamist, for seeking to strengthen ties with Hamas, the radical group that governs Gaza and is accused to ferrying militants into the Sinai.
But the military, which has limited Morsi's power, is in charge of national security. Morsi did not attend Tuesday's funeral for the slain border guards. His office said he wanted to allow the public to mourn in what it described as an "emotionally charged" atmosphere. Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was heckled and threatened by mourners.
The trouble in the Sinai has led to new calls for a wider Egyptian military presence. Under the 1979 peace treaty, much of the region was designated as demilitarized. Before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled early last year, Egypt increased the number of lightly armed troops in the region.
But security deteriorated in recent months after Mubarak's police forces -- despised by local residents -- pulled back over fears of retaliation. The army moved in but the militants remained active, launching assaults on checkpoints and repeatedly bombing a natural gas pipeline serving Israel.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Egyptian security forces stand by their armored personnel carriers ahead of a military operation in the northern Sinai peninsula on Wednesday. Credit: AFP/Getty Images