CAIRO – Egypt said Saturday that it has coordinated an ongoing security sweep of the Sinai Peninsula with Israel, and that the campaign does not violate the two nations' peace treaty.
The remarks appeared to be in response to U.S. and Israeli concerns about the operation, the largest deployment of troops and heavy military equipment in the Sinai since Egypt and Israel signed the accord in 1979.
In the military's first news conference since the operation began, Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali also said Egyptian troops have killed 32 "criminals" and arrested 38 who included foreign drug traffickers.
The military launched the sweep following an Aug. 5 militant attack near the border with Israel and Gaza that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, the deadliest internal attack on Egyptian troops in recent history. The army has suggested that it is targeting not just Islamist radicals blamed for the attack but also smugglers and others in the lawless desert region.
Ali said Egypt consults with Israel on its security policies in the Sinai in line with its treaty obligations.
"There is coordination over the presence of the armed forces in the Sinai territories," he said. "I think that there is the understanding that the military operation in Sinai is in the interest of all."
An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said there are ongoing communications between the two sides.
Sinai, particularly the northern part, has seen a security vacuum since the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak last year, and Islamist militant groups have used it to expand their presence.
A large swath of the peninsula's territory is demilitarized according to the 1979 treaty. Israel, which has long complained that militants were using Sinai as a base to stage cross-border attacks, had agreed to the deployment of extra troops in areas restricted by the accord. It raised concerns about the tanks, however, and the U.S. asked Egypt to be transparent about its security operation.
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio last week that Israel is asking Egyptian officials to coordinate all future military activity in the area and remove its forces once the offensive ends.
Ali reiterated Egypt's commitment to the 1979 treaty "without harming national interest."
Egyptian officials have used this and similar qualifiers repeatedly to describe the country's adherence to the treaty. For several years, Cairo has said it wants to see the treaty amended to allow the deployment of more troops. Israel has agreed to the temporary deployment of extra troops but is tepid to formal amendments to the treaty for fear of enshrining too much firepower on its border.
Ali said troops have also located and destroyed 31 tunnels used for smuggling along the border with Gaza, and have seized weapons and vehicles used by criminals. He said Egyptian air and naval forces supported the operation, also a first since the 1979 treaty.
Security officials in Cairo said those arrested included at least four suspected of involvement in the border attack, including a militant known as Abu Elias who once fought with Islamist militants in Afghanistan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Egypt's new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi has also reportedly opened a political track in dealing with the militants. He is reported to have commissioned a group of former jihadists to talk with Sinai's radical groups. Officials have also appealed to Sinai residents to hand over weapons in exchange for rewards.
Military spokesman Ali said a second phase of the operation has begun on Aug. 31 and is still underway "to prepare to uproot criminal pockets (in Sinai) completely," he said. He did not provide further details and did not say when the operation is due to end.