JERUSALEM: Three Israeli soldiers and a member of Egypt’s security forces were killed on Saturday in a rare exchange of fire near the border between the two countries, official sources from both sides said.
The Israeli army said an Egyptian assailant shot dead two soldiers “in the early morning... while they secured a military post at the Egyptian border” on Mount Harif, near the town of Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev desert.
The discovery of their bodies triggered a manhunt during which the third soldier was killed.
An army statement identified the assailant as an Egyptian policeman, saying he was killed by Israeli troops after being found “in Israeli territory”.
The statement said an investigation was being carried out “in full cooperation with the Egyptian army”.
A fourth Israeli soldier, a non-commissioned officer, was lightly wounded and evacuated to hospital, the military added.
An Egyptian army spokesman said “a member of the security forces... chased drug smugglers. During the chase, the security agent crossed the security fence (border)” and an exchange of fire took place.
Israel’s army had initially declined to confirm media reports of the first two deaths, while the families were being notified.
The two soldiers, a man and a woman, were “killed by live fire adjacent to the border”, it said in a statement.
A barrier runs along the Israel-Egypt border, and an army spokesman said Israel was looking into how it had been breached.
Hours before the deadly shooting, Israeli soldiers had foiled an attempted drug smuggling operation at the border, seizing contraband goods estimated to be worth 1.5 million shekels ($400,000), a spokesman said.
The spokesman added that no link had been established between the drugs seizure and the attack on the border post.
Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said he conducted a situational assessment with the chief of staff and that the military “will investigate the event as required”.
The Israeli military spokesperson said that while drug smuggling attempts in the area were frequent, the last known infiltration into Israel happened some 10 years ago.
There have been several previous incidents along Israel’s border with Egypt.
In August 2012, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in a major attack on a military checkpoint on the Sinai Peninsula. The attackers then tried to break through the border with Israel in two captured military vehicles.