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Egypt launches attacks on militants in first Sinai airstrikes in decades

At least 20 suspected Islamic militants have been killed in a major security crackdown by Egypt near the border with Israel. Security forces on both sides of the border are on high alert. NBC's John Ray reports.

Egyptian military attack helicopters fired missiles on suspected Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday, officials and residents said, in the first Egyptian airstrike in the territory in nearly three decades.

The use of air power marked a sharp escalation in Egypt's fight against Islamic militants who have become increasingly active in the mountainous, desert peninsula bordering Israel in the wake of the ouster of autocratic Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

No precise casualty figures from the government strikes were immediately available. Reuters quoted an Egyptian army commander as saying 20 militants were killed.

"We have succeeded in entering al-Toumah village, killed 20 terrorists and destroyed three armored cars belonging to terrorists. Operations are still ongoing," the commander, who was not named, told Reuters.

The English-language version of the state-run Al-Ahram news service said only that "many" gunmen were killed or injured.

Over the weekend, militants stunned the Egyptian army with a bold, surprise attack in which gunmen killed 16 soldiers, stole armored vehicles and drove into Israel to attempt another attack. The attackers were killed by Israeli fire.

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Egyptian security forces stand by their armored personnel carriers ahead of a military operation in the northern Sinai peninsula on Wednesday.

Also, on Wednesday, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi announced that he had fired his intelligence chief and the governor of Northern Sinai in the wake of the deadly weekend attack.   

Mursi vowed to restore security in Sinai after the incident on Sunday.

He appointed Mohamed Shehata as acting head of intelligence, presidency spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters.

Ali said Mursi also asked the head of Egypt's armed forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to name a new head of military police, and named a new head of the presidential guard.

Violence tests Morsi
That was the bloodiest attack on security forces in Sinai since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, an accord that returned the peninsula to Egyptian control and brought a close to a succession of wars between the two countries. Israeli forces completed the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982.

In a statement read out on state TV, the military said it has started a joint military-police ground operation in Sinai, backed by warplanes, to "restore stability and regain control" of the Sinai. It provided little detail.

The Sunday violence underlined the growing lawlessness of the territory, where security forces repeatedly have been targeted by militants, some loosely linked with al-Qaida.

Ahmed Youssef / EPA

18 days of popular protest culminated in the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011.

After the attack, Israel had called on Egypt to end lawlessness near the border and the Egyptian army promised retribution, branding the attackers "infidels."

Morsi, a moderate Islamist who took office in June, has tried to allay Israeli concerns with promises to bring Sinai back under government control.

The Egyptian army, which kept peace with Israel throughout the Mubarak years, still keeps broad sway over national security. But Morsi has also brought Egypt closer to the Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza, making this a delicate time in relations between the Jewish state and the Arab power.

Mohammed Morsi: Protesters' bloodshed will not be in vain

Hamas, which emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, condemned Sunday's attack and said it was trying to help Egypt identify the gunmen.

But the killing of the soldiers by Islamists served to deepen divisions between Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, on the one side, and the largely secular military on the other.

"The same lines of division exist," Mustapha Kamel el-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University, told The New York Times. "People are making new arguments."

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Israel said Egypt's action against the militants was a necessary response against groups threatening its security.

"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 because that is their responsibility," senior Israeli defense official, Amos Gilad, said on Israel Radio on Wednesday.

Gunmen attack checkpoints
In the latest violence, gunmen opened fire late Tuesday night on three security checkpoints around el-Arish, the capital of North Sinai province, some 31 miles from the borders with Gaza and Israel. One of the attacks was on the checkpoint on the main highway between el-Arish and the town of Rafah on the Israeli border.

Egypt has elected a conservative president who has said he wants to impose Islamic law. How he will change the country remains unclear. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

The shootings wounded six people, among them a military officer, two soldiers, two police officers and a civilian whose condition is critical, security officials told The Associated Press. The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

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Helicopters carried out strikes using missiles in retaliation later, security officials told the AP.

Bedouin resident Abdel Rahman Abol Malkhous told the AP he saw attack helicopters overhead firing missiles about 18 1/2 miles east of El-Arish in the area known as Sheikh Zuwayed near the Rafah border crossing with Gaza.

The security officials told the AP it was the first time the army has fired missiles in Sinai since Egypt's 1973 war with Israel, in which Egypt tried to recapture the then-Israeli held peninsula.

Under the peace treaty with Israel, a large chunk of Sinai was demilitarized. But in 2005 and following Mubarak’s ouster, Israel agreed to boost the number of Egyptian troops allowed in the area, although they remain lightly armed. The Sunday attack spurred renewed calls in Egypt to amend the treaty to allow for more troops and ammunition in Sinai.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell examines the obstacles ahead for President-elect Mohammed Morsi of Egypt.

Sinai has seen lawlessness and militant violence in the past, but it worsened after the uprising that toppled Mubarak.

Residents say the militants far better armed than the security forces on the ground, which have repeatedly come under attack by militants.

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Israel has long accused Palestinian militant groups of crossing from Gaza to Egypt to team up with local fighters with the aim of attacking Israel's long border.

Mubarak's government worked closely with Israel to secure the frontier region until he was toppled 18 months ago.

The revolt made way for Egypt's first free leadership vote, which brought Morsi into office. His commitment to security cooperation with Israel is now being tested.

NBC News staff, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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