EL-ARISH, Egypt — Military helicopters fired on a meeting of suspected militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, officials said Sunday, killing at least 12 people as authorities stepped up their attacks after an Israeli drone strike in the region.
The helicopter attack came as Egyptian and Israeli officials tried to play down the drone strike Friday in the largely lawless Sinai, fearing popular criticism in a country already roiled by a military coup last month that ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Egyptian officials said three helicopters targeted militants in the desert town of Sheik Zuweid late Saturday. In addition to those killed, about a dozen people were wounded in the attack, they said.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
A military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali, confirmed the attack in a post on his official Facebook page. He said 25 militants were targeted, but he did not provide a breakdown of casualties.
Those targeted in the air assault, Ali said, were wanted for an attack last year that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. They also were wanted in connection with the abduction of seven security forces this year, he said.
A resident of Sheik Zuweid, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said he saw the start of the helicopter attack Saturday night. On Sunday, he said, neighbors saw two funerals for slain militants, one with four bodies and the other with two. Cellphone service was disrupted during the attack, he said.
Egypt’s military and security forces have been engaged in a long battle against fighters in the northern half of the peninsula. Militants and tribesmen have used the area for smuggling and other criminal activity for years. Militants have fired rockets into Israel and staged other cross-border attacks there.
Since the July 3 coup, attacks against security personnel in the region have intensified.
Egyptian security officials said Friday that a drone firing from the Israeli side of the border had killed five suspected militants preparing to launch rockets at Israel. The site of the strike was about three miles inside Egypt.
Israel has maintained official silence about the strike, probably to avoid exposing Egypt’s military to domestic backlash. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but many Egyptians still view the Jewish state with suspicion.