Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed regret on Saturday for the deaths of Egyptian security officers who were apparently shot by IDF troops as they returned fire at the terrorists who carried out the attacks near Eilat on Thursday.

Barak’s statement was aimed at reducing tension between Jerusalem and Cairo, which peaked early Saturday morning with reports that Egypt was recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv due to the killing of the security officers. Defense officials said they hoped the expression of regret would succeed in annulling Cairo’s earlier decision.

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“Israel regrets the deaths of the Egyptian officers that occurred during the attacks along the Israeli-Egyptian border,” Barak said following security consultations he held on Saturday at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. “The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is of great importance and strategic value for the continued stability of the Middle East.”

Barak said he ordered the IDF to conduct a military probe of the incident, and defense officials said it would likely be a joint probe with the participation of the Egyptian military.

Egypt said the security officers were killed Thursday when IDF forces pursued the armed assailants who carried out a multi-stage terror attack, killing eight Israelis. Egyptian anger over the incident intensified when Barak said Egypt was “losing its grip” over the Sinai Peninsula.

According to an initial IDF probe, the security officers were apparently killed when IDF soldiers opened fire in the direction of terrorists who had first shot at them from within Egypt. The terrorists had crossed into Israel and carried out their attacks directly adjacent to an Egyptian military outpost.

On Saturday morning, Egypt announced it was withdrawing its ambassador from Israel, citing the shooting of the security personnel as a breach of its 1979 peace treaty.

Israel said it hoped that after Barak’s comments, the Egyptian envoy, who had not yet left, would remain in Tel Aviv.

“We hope the ambassador will not be recalled,” Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said. “He’s still here, that’s a fact.”

One Israeli official said the attacks were clearly unintentional.

“One thing is sure, there is not a single person in Israel who wants to harm an Egyptian policeman or soldiers,” Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s Diplomatic-Security Bureau said.

State news agency MENA quoted an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official as saying the Israeli ambassador was not in Cairo.

“Egypt’s Foreign Ministry will summon the Israeli charge d’affaires to convey Egypt’s official protest over gunfire from the Israeli side in a way that led to victims falling inside Egypt,” the official said.

Egypt planned to ask for a “formal joint investigation to uncover the circumstances of the incident and pin down those responsible and take legal procedures to safeguard the rights of the Egyptian victims and casualties,” the official said.

Hundreds of Egyptians protested alongside the Israeli embassy in Cairo overnight, burning Israeli flags, tearing down metal barriers and demanding the expulsion of the Israeli envoy.

Reuters contributed to the report.


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