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Report blames Hamas for Egypt soldier killings

Thursday - 3/14/2013, 4:50pm  ET

CAIRO (AP) -- A report by a state-owned Egyptian weekly magazine on Thursday accused the Palestinian militant movement Hamas of carrying out one of the bloodiest attacks against the Egyptian army in years -- the killing 16 of soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula in August 2012. Hamas' military wing angrily accused Egypt's state media of spreading "flagrant lies."

It was not possible to verify contents of the report. The magazine Al-Ahram al-Araby is closely connected to security agencies, and Egypt's military currently has a strained relationship with President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group from which Hamas is an offshoot.

Military officers have been issuing thinly veiled warnings that the armed forces might return to the politics. Morsi's government has been shaken by a bitter conflict with the opposition and by economic shortages, but security in the Sinai is a particular sensitivity. After the August attack, Morsi sacked a number of top military and intelligence chiefs.

The mountainous peninsula is beset with several interrelated security challenges, including a long-running Islamist insurgency that has intensified since Egypt's 2011 uprising and Bedouin-run smuggling networks.

The military recently stepped up its crackdown on smuggling into the Gaza Strip, a Hamas-ruled territory under Israeli blockade. A day before the report came out, Egypt arrested seven Hamas members at Cairo International Airport, according to a security official meanwhile Egypt's military frequently reports demolishing underground tunnels used by Hamas in smuggling weapons, militants and goods.

Al-Ahram Al-Araby's article, based on an alleged report by an unnamed high ranking official, published the names of three top Hamas commanders whom it said masterminded and executed the attack. It said that Hamas militants received help from Islamic extremists in Sinai.

Among them was Ayman Nofal, a Hamas militant arrested in the Sinai three years ago, when authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was in power, and accused of planning bombing attacks. He escaped from prison during the chaos of the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising and sneaked back to Gaza through a smuggling tunnel.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas' military wing Izzedine al Qassam, described the report as "only illusions and dreams in the minds of the editor ... which is consistent with the role of the Zionist propaganda efforts to drive wedges between the resistance and the Egyptian people."

Covering his face with a Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, he derided the report as "flagrant lies," in a presser held in Gaza.

Other Gaza officials also denied the reports. A top security official told Associated Press in Gaza that Hamas worked closely with Egypt in investigating the August attack and that the Egyptians found no links between Gaza and the attack on the soldiers. Both he and the Egyptian security official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The publication came a day after Egypt's Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said during n an address to border guards said that the military would confront "anyone who dares to harm Egypt's security or armed forces."

"We will never forget those who killed us while we were fasting," he was quoted by the daily Al-Shorouk as saying. The border guards were killed as they broke the fast for the holy month of Ramadan.

At the time of the attack, Egypt blamed a group of 35 militants from both Sinai and Gaza, home to a wide range of Islamist groups including some that are more radical than Hamas. It said 35 gunmen stormed the post and killed the guards before commandeering an armored vehicle they later used to try to storm across the border into Israel. It said Gaza militants supported the attack by firing mortar round at a nearby post. President Mohammed Morsi said the attackers "will pay dearly."

The Israeli military said the attack was part of a plot to abduct an Israeli soldier, and two vehicles commandeered by the attackers crashed into Israel, where one blew up.

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AP writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza.


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