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Egypt, Israel ties on the boil

Rockets from Gaza apparently targeting Israel landed across the border in Egypt today, amid tensions after the deaths of policemen on the border and protests outside Israel's embassy.

world Updated: Aug 21, 2011 21:14 IST

Rockets from Gaza apparently targeting Israel landed across the border in Egypt on Sunday, amid tensions after the deaths of policemen on the border and protests outside Israel's embassy.

Tensions between the Jewish state and the most populous Arab nation have surged since the deaths on Thursday of the police officers, killed as Israeli troops pursued militants responsible for deadly attacks near Eilat.

"Several rockets from the Gaza Strip landed this morning in Egyptian territory in the region west of the Rafah terminal, without causing casualties," the television reported. A security official speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the report but said the rockets could have been fired by mistake.

"It seems they were directed at Israel."

The Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees and the armed wing of Islamic Jihad said they had lobbed rockets at an Israeli army post near Kerem Shalom on the Israel-Gaza border, two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the Egyptian frontier.

"So far, two rockets have been found and the security forces combing the area are looking for other rockets," Egyptian security sources said. Tensions in and around the Gaza Strip have soared since Thursday when militants staged a series of bloody shooting attacks in the Negev desert, killing eight Israelis and prompting a wave of bloody tit-for-tat exchanges.

It also sparked a diplomatic crisis with post-Mubarak Egypt after Cairo said five policemen were killed by Israeli fire as soldiers pursued gunmen involved in the Negev ambushes.

Egyptian state media reported Saturday that the government had decided to recall its envoy to Tel Aviv and later said a senior Israeli envoy was summoned by the foreign minister to receive a protest note.

Israeli defence ninister Ehud Barak said the Jewish state "regrets" the deaths of the soldiers, without saying who carried out the killings, and would probe the killings and share the results with the Egyptian authorities.

But Egypt said the apology was insufficient, as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo overnight to vent their anger. They trickled down to 200 by Sunday afternoon.

Ahmed Shehat became a hero to an exultant crowd of Egyptians and many more online when he hauled down the Star of David flag atop Israel's embassy in Cairo. More than 1,000 people protested outside the Israeli embassy overnight and let off celebratory fireworks when Shehat clambered to the top floor of a high-rise housing the mission, replacing the flag with an Egyptian one.

Shehat became an instant idol with one Egyptian presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, hailing him as "the people's hero" on Twitter, while other fans described him as the "Egyptian Spiderman" on social networks, Military police in riot gear stood outside the embassy building but did not intervene to halt the protest.

The latest tensions represent the most serious test of Israel's landmark 1979 peace treaty with Egypt since an uprising overthrew Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in February.

The government said an Israeli statement expressing regret for the deaths of the policemen was not enough, but stopped short of saying if it would recall its envoy from Tel Aviv as reported by state media.

"Egypt affirms its solicitude for maintaining peace with Israel, but Israel must also assume responsibility for protecting this peace," a statement said. The foreign ministry had summoned Israel's charge d'affaires -- in the absence of the ambassador -- Saturday afternoon for a reprimand hours after state television said Egypt would recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

Israel said it had received no notification of the decision to withdraw the envoy. The Cairo-based Arab League meanwhile stepped up pressure and called on the international community to stop Israel's "brutal assault" on the Gaza Strip.

But a senior Israeli official criticised the statement, questioning why the Arab League had not issued a similar statement condemning Thursday's bloody ambush on Israeli busses.

"The Arab League, which in principle advocates peace and opposes terrorism, unfortunately, has refused to condemn a deadly terrorist attack against innocent Israeli civilians coming from the territory of a member of the League," he told AFP speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israeli officials accused Palestinian militants in Gaza, which also borders Egypt, of planning the attack and carrying it out after slipping into the Negev desert from Egyptian territory.

Egypt has denied the gunmen used its territory and bristled at suggestions that it had lost control of the Sinai peninsula, where its military has been conducting a week-long operation to root out Islamist militants.

First Published: Aug 21, 2011 21:12 IST