A man identified by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities as an Egyptian security officer entered Israeli territory on Saturday and killed three Israeli soldiers in two separate shooting incidents in a remote desert area along the border between the two countries, according to an initial investigation by the Israeli military.
Many details remained murky hours after the events unfolded, but Israeli military officials appeared to be treating the incident along the usually quiet border as a rogue assault and said the investigation was being conducted in cooperation with the Egyptian Army.
The Israeli and Egyptian militaries offered different versions of the episode.
A spokesman for the Israeli military said the sequence of events began at about 2.30 a.m. on Saturday when Israeli soldiers thwarted a major cross-border drug smuggling attempt, which involved ladders being placed along the border fence. They seized a haul worth about $400,000, the spokesman said.
Then, at about 8 a.m., when Israeli soldiers stationed at a border post failed to answer calls on their radio, a commander went to the scene and found the bodies of a male soldier and a female soldier, the spokesman said. They were thought to have been killed an hour or two earlier.
More soldiers arrived to conduct searches in the area, and around noon they tracked down a suspect in Israeli territory, the spokesman said. In a subsequent exchange of fire, a third Israeli soldier was killed, as was the suspect, who was dressed in the fatigues worn by Egyptian border guards. An Israeli noncommissioned officer was lightly wounded in the firefight.
The Egyptian Army said in a statement that at dawn, a member of its security forces assigned to secure the border had breached the security fence while chasing drug smugglers. The army said he had engaged in an exchange of fire that led to the death of three Israeli soldiers and the injury of two others as well as the death of the Egyptian officer himself.
The Egyptian statement did not account for the hours between the smuggling attempt and the shootings that the Israeli military outlined.
The Israeli military said the assailant’s affiliation and motives were not immediately clear.
Although the desolate, mountainous area has long been known for drug smuggling activity, deadly security incidents along Israel’s border with Egypt are much rarer, with the last major attacks having taken place over a decade ago.
In August 2011, eight Israelis were killed in a multipronged attack from across the Egyptian frontier near the Israeli resort of Eilat. In that episode, militants opened fire at an Israeli bus on a road that winds along the border and, minutes later, detonated a bomb next to an Israeli army patrol. The militants then fired an anti-tank missile and hit a private vehicle, killing the passengers.
In the chaotic aftermath, Israeli forces killed three of the attackers who had crossed into Israeli territory. Israeli security forces also killed five Egyptian officers who were chasing down the attackers on the Egyptian side — bringing Israel and Egypt to the brink of a diplomatic crisis.
Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty more than 40 years ago and coordinate closely along the border. Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, said that Israeli and Egyptian liaison officers keep in constant contact and that they had been in touch even as the events on Saturday were unfolding.
Vivian Yee contributed reporting from Cairo.