Strikes against Islamic militants kill 'at least 20' in Sinai desert

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Egyptian forces yesterday launched air strikes in the northern Sinai desert for the first time in four decades in an effort to crack down on Islamic militants blamed for killing 16 Egyptian soldiers during an attempted attack on Israel.

The assault was followed by a major security shake-up, as a spokesperson for President Mohammed Morsi announced the dismissal of Egypt's intelligence chief, the Governor of Northern Sinai and several other officials.

Yesterday's early morning offensive by helicopter gunships and infantry – that unconfirmed reports said had cost the lives of at least 20 people – followed a fresh overnight wave of violence in the area, in which security officials said gunmen had launched co-ordinated attacks on seven Egyptian checkpoints.

The checkpoint shoot-outs, which injured at least two people, came little more than 48 hours after last Sunday's audacious operation by jihadist militants. Having killed the 16 soldiers, they seized an armoured personnel carrier and drove it across the border two kilometres into Israel, before it was hit in an Israeli air strike.

Witnesses near the town of Sheikh Zuweid told Reuters they had seen three cars bombed during yesterday's operation – unprecedented since Israel ceded control of the Sinai in the 1979 peace accord which normally restricts military deployments by Cairo. One Egyptian army commander said 20 militants were killed when troops, backed by helicopters, entered al-Toumah village, 15 miles south of Sheikh Zuweid.

In Israel, the senior defence official, Amos Gilad, told Israel Radio: "What we see in Egypt is a strong fury, a determination of the regime and the army to take care of it and impose order in Sinai."

The Egyptian military believes some of the "global jihadi" gunmen came into Sinai from Gaza via the tunnels. It appeared to have begun work to seal them off.

Hamas, which had been trying to persuade Egypt to open the border more fully, has condemned Sunday's attack on the soldiers.