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Egyptian military aircraft have been bombing a spot on the country's own territory. They're striking in the Sinai desert, near the border with Israel. The targets are militants operating in that lawless area and believed to be responsible for a deadly attack this week. The attackers, the other day, killed Egyptian soldiers and tried to enter Israel. NPR's Leila Fadel is now joining us on the line to talk about the Egyptian response.
And what are the Egyptians doing exactly?
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, right now it's difficult to know exactly what they're doing up in the Sinai. We can't get close to that area. But there's both a tank and aircraft operation that began late last night. And state media reports all say that they've killed about 20 what they call Islamist militants in the area.
This followed on major attacks last night at police checkpoints throughout Arish and that area. So this is really the toughest stance that you've seen the Egyptian military take in the Sinai, possibly since 1973.
INSKEEP: 1973, that would be Egypt's war against Israel, when there was quite a lot of fighting in that area. Now, in this case, does this attack suggest that these Islamist militants actually control a piece of territory that the government is attacking to take back?
FADEL: There are parts of that northern area in Sinai, near the border, like Sheikh Zuwaid, that really the police have been unable to access - and the military. It's been in the control of Islamist militants, according to residents and people that we speak to up there.
And so really they've had to reenter these areas that have been off limits to them. So the fact that they're engaging in Sheikh Zuwaid is extremely unusual, because they have had no access to that area. And so residents in the area say Islamist militants have been growing there for months and nobody's done anything to stop it.
INSKEEP: What do these militant groups want?
FADEL: That's really unclear. I mean, really nobody really understands what the end goal of these militants are. Is it to get rid of the security forces in the area and be able to attack Israel? Is it to start an Islamist state in Sinai? There has been no declaration by any particular group that says this is what we want out of Sinai. But it's fertile breeding ground, because of the security vacuum that really has been there for decades, but has become worse since Hosni Mubarak was ousted.
INSKEEP: Well, now, as best you can tell, Leila, how closely are the Egyptian military forces coordinating with the Israelis who are right there across the border?
FADEL: Well, this is the first real test of the relationship between the new Islamist president from the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi and the Israeli officials. This is the first time they really have to speak to each other, coordinate with each other about security in this area.
There are still the lines between Israel and the military generals who are the same men that Israel has dealt with for decades. But now you have an Islamist president who says, hey, we think Israel's involved in this attack. We think that they are involved and they're trying to embarrass us and undermine our leadership because they don't want us in power.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Mohammed Morsi, the new president of Egypt, is suggesting that the Israelis are somehow behind this Islamist group that's on the border that the Egyptians are now attacking?
FADEL: Well, Mohammed Morsi himself did not accuse the Israelis, but the organization that he belongs to, the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a statement accusing the Israelis and their spy agency, the Mossad, of being involved in this attack to undermine Mohammed Morsi's leadership. So de facto, that sheds light on the possible thinking of Mohammed Morsi, because this is his organization that he belongs to.
INSKEEP: So just to be clear of what the dangers are here, we do have a situation where Egyptians are striking people on Egyptian soil. It does not involve Israel directly, but it's right there by the border. There's all this rhetoric. Is there a danger of an escalation of the conflict here?
FADEL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think the situation is extremely dangerous. We've seen one attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. And that didn't stop. There's continued attacks on the checkpoints. And now you have the military engaging. So it's possible that this will escalate.
INSKEEP: NPR's Leila Fadel is in Cairo. She is following the situation in Egypt, where war planes have been striking suspected militants near the border with Israel.
Thanks very much.
FADEL: Thank you so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.