This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
JERUSALEM -- As Egypt deployed attack helicopters Monday to the Sinai Peninsula to search for militants who killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, Israeli officials credited advance intelligence and a quick response for averting what they said was meant to be a large-scale suicide attack on their side of the border.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the restive area and praised the country’s security forces for quickly destroying a stolen Egyptian armored vehicle after it crashed through a border fence.
As many as 35 militants attacked an Egyptian security post Sunday night as soldiers were breaking fast from the Ramadan holiday, Egyptian authorities said. The attackers stole two armored vehicles and began racing toward the Israel border crossing near Karam abu Salem.
One vehicle, loaded with an undetermined number of militants wearing suicide vests, exploded into an Israeli border post that had been evacuated as a precaution. The second vehicle then entered Israel and was immediately destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, killing eight militants, Israeli officials said.
There were no Israeli casualties during the 15-minute attack.
Israeli officials had been bracing for violence in the Sinai for days and military warplanes were on standby, Israeli media reported.
“It’s not as though we were expecting exactly this, but we did have quite a few security alerts coming from the region,’’ said Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitz.
She said it remained unclear what group was behind the attack but that the militants carried half a ton of explosives. “Their intention was to kill as many people in Israel as possible," she said.
Last week a jihadist group in Sinai promised to attack Israeli border positions: "We will head shortly to execute a double suicide operation targeting the Jewish enemy forces on the Egyptian borders," according to a video statement posted by the group, Magles Shoura al-Mujahedin.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called upon the new Egyptian government to take more seriously the rising security threat from terrorist groups in the Sinai.
“This will not be the last time that we come across attempts to harm us,” Barak said Monday while visiting the border with the prime minister. “I hope that this will be a wake-up call for Egypt regarding the necessity to be sharp and efficient on their side.”
Newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi expressed his condolences to the families of the 16 soldiers and vowed to capture those responsible.
“Perpetrators who committed this crime will pay a heavy price," he said. “Sinai is safe and under control.”
[Updated Aug. 6, 1:58 p.m.: Morsi later visited the scene on the Egyptian side of the border with his military chief, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Morsi met with several area residents who “vowed to work with his administration, the army and the police in order to bring back security” to their region, his spokesperson said.]
The Egyptian military released a statement saying: "The armed forces have been careful in the past months and during the events of the revolution not to shed Egyptian blood ... but the group that staged yesterday's attack is considered by the armed forces as enemies of the nation who must be dealt with by force."
In Gaza Strip, the Islamist militant group Hamas condemned the attack as a “heinous crime” and denied any involvement.
The incident could strain Egypt's relations with the Palestinians just as Morsi was seeking to improve his nation's ties with Hamas.
-- Edmund Sanders. Jeffrey Fleishman and Reem Abdellatif in Cairo contributed.