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Defense Minster says Israel is sorry over Egyptian troop deaths during clashes with militants
JERUSALEM (AP) ' Israel's Defense Minister says Israel is sorry for the deaths of Egyptian troops killed during a shootout between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants.
Ehud Barak says he has ordered a military investigation and a joint inquiry with the Egyptian army to clarify the circumstances of Friday's incident, when militants from Gaza crossed into southern Israel through the Egyptian desert and launched a deadly attack that killed eight Israeli.
At least three Egyptian troops were killed in a subsequent shootout between Israeli soldiers pursuing the militants along the Israeli-Egypt border. Egypt said Saturday it would recall its ambassador from Israel to protest the deaths.
Barak says that "Israel is sorry over the deaths of the Egyptian officers."
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
CAIRO (AP) ' Egypt said Saturday it would recall its ambassador from Israel to protest the deaths of at least three Egyptian troops killed in a shootout between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who had launched a deadly attack on Israel from Egyptian soil.
The decision sharply escalated tensions between the neighboring countries, whose landmark 1979 peace treaty is being tested by the fall of Egypt's longtime autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt's interim government accused Israel of violating that treaty with its raid that killed the Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula. It also demanded an apology, saying the envoy would be withdrawn until Israel concludes its investigation into the deaths. Egypt says that the three soldiers were killed in an Israeli airstrike.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Israeli government was holding consultations on the Egyptian move, although officials said they hadn't received an official notice about the withdrawal.
The Egyptian Cabinet, which was appointed by the ruling military council that took over power after Mubarak's ouster, revised an earlier statement saying the envoy, Yasser Reda, would be summoned for consultation ' something that would have signaled a lower-level spat. Israel was likely to see that as a worrisome sign that Egypt's new leaders would be more responsive to widespread anti-Israeli sentiment among the public.
While relations between the two countries have been chilly since Egypt became the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel in 1979, Israel valued Mubarak as a source of stability with shared interests in containing Iran and its radical Islamic proxies in the region ' including Hamas.
Several political parties issued statements condemning the Israeli raid and calling for changes to the peace treaty, which regulates the number of Egyptian troops allowed in the Sinai Peninsula.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt's best-organized political force, said "this crime should be dealt with in an appropriate way," adding that "what was possible before the revolution, will not be tolerated to continue after the revolution."
Israeli officials insisted the peace treaty was "stable" despite the troubling developments. The agreement called for Israel to return the captured Sinai to Egypt. In return, Egypt agreed to certain restrictions on the number of troops placed in Sinai.
"No one had any intention to harm Egyptian security personnel," Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official who works closely with Egypt, told Israel Radio. "The question is what happened in the field and that is what is being investigated."
The cross-border attack has raised concerns about the increasingly lawless northern Sinai Peninsula, whose porous borders with both Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip make it an attractive staging ground for Palestinian militant attacks on Israel.
Egypt last week moved thousands of troops into the Sinai Peninsula as part of a major operation against al-Qaida inspired militants who have been increasingly active since Mubarak's ouster. A security official, who declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said 22 Islamic militants have been arrested.
Israel says Gaza militants armed with guns, explosives, mortars and an anti-tank missile, killed eight Israelis in a roadside ambush on Thursday after infiltrating Israel through Sinai. The Egyptian troops were killed as Israeli soldiers went after suspected militants who fled back into Egypt.
A senior Israeli military officer said it was possible that Egyptian soldiers had been killed accidentally when Israeli troops were in pursuit of the Palestinian militants. He said that after Thursday's attack, Israeli and Egyptian militaries were "meeting and talking all the time." The officer spoke on condition of anonymity, under military rules.
A representative from the office of Sinai's general prosecutor Judge Abdel Nasser el-Tayel said that Egyptian investigators have not been able to reach the site of the attacks because of the tense security situation. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Israel has offered conflicting accounts about how the Egyptians were killed and the Israeli military has promised an investigation. But the Egyptian Cabinet, in a strongly worded statement, held Israel "politically and legally responsible for this incident," saying lax security on its side allowed the ambush to take place.
"The Egyptian ambassador to Israel will be withdrawn until we are notified about the results of an investigation by the Israeli authorities," the Cabinet statement said, demanding an immediate probe.
It said Egypt would take all measures and send reinforcements to protect its borders and "to respond to any Israeli military activity at the Egyptian borders."
It was the first time in nearly 11 years that Egypt decided to withdraw its ambassador from Israel. The last time was in November 2000 when the Egyptians protested what they called excessive use of violence during the second Palestinian uprising.
The decision to withdraw Reda was announced as thousands of protesters gathered outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo for a second day, demanding the expulsion of the Israeli envoy. A Palestinian flag was unfurled at the site, and some of the demonstrators threw firecrackers at the building.
Some protesters removed concrete blocks from the entrance of a side street leading to the embassy while others banged on a metal fence with bars, but no violence was reported.
A dozen armored vehicles were stationed in the area and soldiers formed a cordon in front of the main gates to prevent any protesters from reaching the embassy building.
Mohammed Adel, a leader of the protests that toppled Mubarak, welcomed the Cabinet decision, saying, "It proves to all that the Egyptian revolution is capable of imposing its rules on the Israeli enemy."
An Israeli military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations, initially said a suicide bomber, not Israeli soldiers, killed the Egyptian security forces. He said the attacker had fled back across the border into Egypt and detonated his explosives among the Egyptian troops.
Israeli media also reported that some of the sniper fire directed at the Israeli motorists Thursday came from near Egyptian army posts and speculated that the Egyptian troops were killed in the cross fire.
It was not possible to reconcile the different versions.
Hamas praised Thursday's ambush ' which was the deadliest for Israel since 2008 ' but denied any involvement. Israel accused a Hamas-allied group, the Popular Resistance Committees, of carrying out the ambush.
The ambush also has threatened to stoke the Mideast conflict as retaliatory violence between Israel and Gaza militants spiked. Israeli airstrikes killed at least 12 Palestinians, most of them militants, Friday in Gaza, and nine Israelis were wounded by Palestinian rockets fired into southern Israel.
On Saturday, one of those rockets struck three Palestinians who were illegally residing in Israel, injuring two of them seriously, police said.
Teibel reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem also contributed to this report.