EL-TUR: South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda denied that gunmen who killed seven people in attacks on buses in neighboring Israel on Thursday had fired from Egypt.
At the same time, Egyptian security sources ruled out Israeli claims that Palestinian attackers infiltrated from their territory.
Seven people were killed and 25 wounded when gunmen raked a bus and blasted two other vehicles in southern Israel near the border with Egypt.
Shortly afterwards, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak blamed the Islamist Hamas-controlled Gaza for the attack and criticized Egypt for losing control over security in Sinai and along the border with Israel.
Fouda told reporters that "there was no gunfire from the Egyptian side."
Egyptian security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, ruled out that Palestinian militants from Gaza to the north slipped past their patrols into Israel.
The governor of North Sinai, Abdel Wahab Mabruk, challenged Israel to provide evidence that the attacks originated from Egypt.
"How does Israel know they came from Sinai? What is Israel’s evidence?" he said to reporters.
He also ruled out that militants slipped into Egypt through a tunnel network with Gaza, saying there were intense security measures in place because of ongoing military operations targeting militants in Sinai.
Israeli security sources said initially that the gunfire appeared to come from the Egyptian side of the border, which runs parallel to Route 12 for several dozen kilometers (miles).
But military spokeswoman Avital Leibovitch told AFP that "everything took place in Israeli territory."
"It was a grave terrorist incident that took place in several locations," Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement. "It reflects the weakening of Egypt’s hold in the Sinai and the broadening of activities by terror elements."
Calling the Gaza Strip, territory controlled by Hamas Islamists and bordering the Sinai and Israel, "the source of terrorist activities", Barak said: "We will act against them with full force and determination."
Israel’s military said the incident began when "terrorists shot at a bus on its way to (the city of) Eilat and then fired an anti-tank rocket at another vehicle. At the same time, a military patrol hit an explosive device."
Israeli special forces were called in and engaged the gunmen as police and military closed roads around Eilat, a popular Red Sea resort.
The military said between two and four gunmen were killed.
Israeli officials have voiced concern that militant groups in the Sinai have been making use of a security vacuum left by the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
"Our initial assumption is that a terrorist squad has infiltrated to Israel and caused this multiple attack," said Lieutentant-Colonel Avital Leibowitz, an Israeli military spokeswoman.
The Israeli shekel fell against the dollar and stocks dipped on Thursday.
"I saw two men in fatigues shooting at me," the bus driver, Benny Bilbaski, told Israel Radio. "I saw that there were wounded on the bus but I continued to drive on, looking straight not looking right or left. Once I got a kilometer past the area and I was out of range we took care of the wounded."
Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, recently stepped up security activity in the Sinai.
Egypt’s military, in charge since a revolt ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February, is carrying out an operation in Sinai to capture Islamist militants who attacked a police station and a gas pipeline to Israel.
Security patrols on the Egyptian-Israeli border had not picked up on "suspicious movements" on the Egyptian side, a source said on Thursday, adding that security had been heightened on the border after news of the incident.
Israeli soldiers stand at an army checkpoint in the Eilat Mountains near an Egyptian military post on their side of the border between the two countries on March 26, 2009 in southern Israel. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)