A terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida said on Saturday that an Israeli drone killed four of its members in north Sinai.
“Our heroes became martyrs during their jihadi duties against the Jews in a rocket attack on occupied lands,” the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis organization said on a jihadist website.
Egyptian security sources said before the release of the group’s statement that a missile strike killed four Islamist fighters on Friday as they prepared to fire rockets at Israel.
It was not clear how the terrorist group determined that an Israeli drone targeted its members.
Five security sources told Reuters that Israel carried out the attack, but the Egyptian armed forces officially denied that was the case and an IDF spokeswoman in Jerusalem declined to comment on the incident.
The two countries have cooperated in the past to tackle the threat of Islamist terrorists in Sinai and neither seemed interested in creating a fuss in this case.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis criticized the Egyptian military for what it called its repeated cooperation with Israel.
The Egyptian army said two explosions took place at a site 3 km. west of the Israeli border and south of the city of Rafah on Friday afternoon.
The security sources in Sinai said an IAF aircraft struck the terrorists, killing four, after discovering that they planned to fire rockets into Israel.
One source said the aircraft had observed the terrorists preparing three rocket launchpads before launching a missile, killing two men, then killed another pair who stepped up to the launchpads.
AFP cited Egyptian sources as saying the IDF coordinated the attack with the Egyptian authorities, but an Egyptian military spokesman denied that report as well.
“The claim that there exists coordination between the Egyptian and the Israeli sides in this matter is a matter completely void of truth,” he said.
Israel Radio reported that a drone bearing missiles fired while still over Israeli airspace, and that residents saw Egyptian army helicopters flying over the area.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon issued a statement on Saturday stressing that Jerusalem “respects Egypt’s full sovereignty.”
Israel is aware of Egypt’s stepped-up activities to combat terrorism in Sinai, and the “Egyptian army is fighting first and foremost to protect Egyptian civilians, as well as Egyptian sovereignty,” he said. “We will not allow rumors and speculation, as they developed over the past 24 hours, to harm the peace agreement.”
On Thursday evening, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz ordered Eilat Airport closed to flights for two hours.
On Friday, Ma’an quoted an Egyptian security source as saying the IDF’s decision to close the airport was a precautionary measure taken by Israel based on Egyptian intelligence that terrorists in Sinai planned to target the Jewish state with missiles.
The IDF instructed the Israel Airports Authority to close the airport in the southern city due to a “security assessment,” but it did not release any details on the security reasons.
According to the Egyptian official cited by Ma’an, Salafi Islamists in Sinai planned to target Israel with shoulderlaunched missiles with a range of 70 km., which would put them well in range of the airspace over Eilat Airport.
Islamists based mainly in north Sinai near Israel have escalated attacks on Egyptian security forces and other targets since July 3, when the army deposed president Mohamed Morsi.
Sinai is largely demilitarized as part of the Israeli- Egyptian peace treaty of 1979, but Israel has approved troop reinforcements to combat terrorists and arms smuggling by Palestinians into Gaza. The peninsula has long been a security headache for Egypt and its neighbors.
The Egyptian army said on Wednesday that it had killed 60 gunmen in Sinai in the month since Morsi’s overthrow.
Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.