CAIRO — Israel "deeply regrets" the deaths of Egyptian security forces who were killed this week in the pursuit of gunmen who'd carried out a deadly ambush on the Israeli side of the restive border region between the two nations, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Saturday.
Barak said Israel and Egypt would conduct a joint inquiry to clear up the disputed circumstances surrounding the gun battle that left at least three Egyptian troops dead and several wounded hours after eight Israelis were killed in an ambush reportedly carried out by Palestinian militants who'd breached the border from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
The cross-border incident this week has plunged the neighbors into their worst diplomatic standoff in a decade, and suggests a much colder peace now that a popular uprising has forced longtime Israeli peace partner Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, from power. Egyptian protesters seeking to suspend diplomatic relations with Israel rejected Barak's statements, saying it wasn't a full apology. They urged a tougher response from Egypt's ruling military council.
The interim Egyptian government on Saturday said it would recall its ambassador to Israel over the incident, but later appeared to backtrack, with officials telling the al Jazeera channel that the matter was still under review. The Foreign Ministry was expected to address the matter Saturday, but hadn't by late evening local time.
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Former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Shalom Cohen paid a brief visit to Cairo on Saturday, meeting with foreign ministry officials before returning to Israel. The Arab League also planned an emergency session to address the crisis.
Separately, Israeli officials said there was "concern" over the rapid escalation in tensions between Egypt and Israel.
"It is not in Israel's interest to have a conflict with Egypt. We consider them an important ally and hope to continue the good relations that have been the building blocs in Israel's diplomatic relations across the region," said one high-ranking defense official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
A meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman Saturday afternoon resulted in the joint Israel and Egypt effort to probe the deaths of Egyptian policemen.
"By working together we also help to mend the bridges, to calm tempers that have flared this week," said the defense official. "We need Egypt's continued assistance in maintaing calm in Sinai and Gaza."
None of the efforts to calm the situation did much to appease the throngs of Egyptian protesters who continued to mass outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, where they demanded an end to the longstanding Egyptian-Israeli peace accord. Army personnel mostly hung back on the edges of the protest, making no attempts to disperse the hundreds — at times, thousands — of demonstrators chanting, "No peace with Israel!"
A similar protest erupted outside the Israeli consulate in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, where demonstrators managed to bring down the Israeli flag and set it on fire, according to TV footage of the incident. The protesters outside the Cairo embassy tried and failed to bring down the Israeli flag.
Israel is deeply unpopular among Egyptians, who identify with the Palestinian cause and are angered over the devastating blockade on Gaza. Mubarak's regime was complicit in the blockade by sealing off its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, and the new political class is eager to distance itself from the old regime's policies.
Fifty-four percent of Egyptians favor annulling the longstanding peace treaty with Israel, according to a poll the U.S.-based Pew Research Center conducted after the popular uprising that forced out Mubarak. But there are signs of fear, too, with some Egyptian viewers sending text-messages Saturday to popular TV shows expressing worries about war if the disagreement worsens.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for November, several candidates are seizing on the public uproar to tout platforms that include reconsidering the peace agreement and stopping Egypt's exports of natural gas to Israel.
"We would like to announce from here in the heart of Cairo that if this could pass in the days of the former president, who was the foremost ally of the Zionist entity, it's not going to be accepted today," said Tarek el Kholy, a spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement, a key organizer of the demonstrations that led to Mubarak's ouster.
Several other political blocs representing Egypt's broad ideological spectrum similarly denounced both the killings of the troops and the government's muted response. So far, Egypt's ruling military council hasn't issued a statement on the incident, leaving it to the caretaker Cabinet to address publicly.
The deadly raid Thursday was part of Israel's retaliation for an ambush that killed eight Israelis, six of them civilians, near the Egyptian border earlier that day. Palestinian gunmen apparently carried out the attack, entering southern Israel from the Egyptian desert that serves as a buffer between the two nations, according to Egyptian officials and news reports.
Three Egyptian security officers died in the ensuing fighting between Israeli forces and suspected assailants, according to official accounts. Seven other Egyptian personnel were wounded; two died Friday of their injuries, according to news reports. Some officials disputed the death toll; an investigation into the incident is still under way.
Also on Saturday, 30 rockets were fired by militants in the Gaza Strip into Israel. One rocket struck a home in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, killing one and injuring three.
Israeli warplanes responded by launching air strikes at several targets across the Gaza Strip. Palestinian medics said that as many as 15 people had been killed by Israeli air strikes since Thursday.
(Special correspondent Refaat Ahmed contributed from Cairo. Special Correspondent for Israel, Sheera Frenkel, contributed.)
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