Jul 2, 10:16 AM EDT

Egypt airstrikes kill 23 militants in Sinai near Gaza border


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AP Photo/f.duckett

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CAIRO (AP) -- The Egyptian military killed 23 extremists in dawn raids Thursday in northern Sinai, security officials said, a day after Islamic militants attacked army positions in the restive peninsula and set off the bloodiest fighting in decades.

The raids took place just south of the border town of Rafah, a key Sinai border town near the Gaza Strip, said the officials.

They said the army was also seeking out militants house to house in the town of Sheikh Zuweid - where the militants attacked at least five army checkpoints the previous day - and demining roads in and around the area that extremists had booby trapped with mines and improvised explosives devices.

An Associated Press reporter across the border in the Gaza Strip heard explosions and saw smoke rising in the area as airstrikes continued in the afternoon and warplanes roared overhead. He witnessed at least seven airstrikes in a half hour period and saw two armored personnel carriers maneuvering in the border area.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Also Thursday, a newspaper close to the Egyptian government said the Islamic State-linked militants who attacked troops on Wednesday in Sinai used sophisticated weaponry, including Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles.

In a graphic on its front page, el-Watan daily said the attackers also used mortars, anti-aircraft guns and other guided missiles.

The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group's local franchise, included a wave of suicide bombings and assaults on security installations by dozens of militants. It was Sinai's deadliest wave of attacks in decades.

The army said 17 troops and 90 militants were killed, but security officials and media reports said dozens of soldiers and some 100 militants died in the fighting.

Newspapers led their front pages with the attack, with many describing it as a "war." Graphic photographs released by the military showed the bodies of extremists killed in the fighting who were wearing desert combat fatigues and ammunition pouches.

Wednesday's assault, focused on Sheikh Zuweid and unprecedented in its coordination and tactics, followed the assassination of Egypt's chief prosecutor and a vow by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to step up the legal battle against Islamic militants.

Late on Wednesday, a resident of Sheikh Zuweid speaking in Cairo said many civilians in the town were trapped by the fighting and military siege, with no water or electricity. He said many residents are trying to flee to el-Arish, the area's largest city.

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Associated Press writers Fares Akram in the Gaza Strip and Aya Batrawy in Dubai contributed to this report.

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