Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi named a new head of intelligence and dismissed the governor of Northern Sinai following airstrikes on suspected militants blamed for a deadly attack this week on Egyptian border police.
In a shake-up of the security forces, President Morsi also asked Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi to replace the commander of the military police, a force that has been heavily used since the ouster 18 months ago of Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Morsi also fired the commander of the presidential guards and named new chiefs for security in Cairo and the police's central security, a large paramilitary force often deployed to deal with riots.
The intelligence chief that Mr. Morsi fired, Murad Muwafi, was quoted in Wednesday's newspapers as saying his agency was aware of an Israeli warning about an attack, but didn't think that Muslims would attack Muslims while breaking their fast during Ramadan.
Local media reported Mr. Morsi has appointed Major General Mohammed Rafaat as the interim head of Intelligence.
The Sunday ambush by militants was one of the bloodiest attacks in Sinai in years and the deadliest against Egyptian troops, underlining the growing lawlessness of the territory, where security forces repeatedly have been targeted by militants, some loosely linked with al Qaeda. The incident prompted calls by Israel and the U.S. for Egypt to regain control of the area, in one of the biggest challenges the newly-elected President Morsi has faced since he took office in June.
Earlier Wednesday Egyptian helicopters fired missiles on suspected militants—the first Egyptian airstrike in the territory since 1973—escalating the fight against the group who stunned the army with a bold, surprise attack in which gunmen killed 16 soldiers, stole armored vehicles and drove into Israel to attempt another attack.
The military said it has started a joint military-police ground operation in Sinai, backed by warplanes, to "restore stability and regain control" of Sinai, according to a statement read on television. It provided little detail.
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.
The shootings wounded six people, among them a military officer, two soldiers, two policemen and a civilian whose condition is critical, security officials said. Helicopters carried out strikes using missiles in retaliation later, security officials said. They didn't give further detail.
Bedouin resident Abdul Rahman Abol Malkhous said he saw attack helicopters overhead firing missiles about 18 miles east of El-Arish in the area known as Sheikh Zuwayed near the Rafah border crossing with Gaza.
The security officials said 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. Sinai reverted to Egyptian control under Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. Israeli forces completed the withdrawal from the peninsula in 1982.
Sinai has seen lawlessness and militant violence in the past, but it took a turn to the worst after the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Amid the uprising, police and internal security forces all but disappeared from the streets across the country. In Sinai, militants have grown steadily bolder.
Residents say the militants are far better armed than the security forces on the ground, which have repeatedly come under attack by militants. Since Mr. Mubarak's ouster, some of the groups have distributed fliers in Sinai urging the forces to leave the peninsula because, they say, it will be declared an Islamic state.
Under the peace treaty with Israel, a large chunk of Sinai is to be demilitarized. But in 2005 and following Mr. Mubarak's ouster last year, Israel agreed to boost the number of troops in the area, although they remain lightly armed. The Sunday attack spurred renewed calls in Egypt to amend the 1979 treaty to allow for more troops and ammunition in Sinai.