CAIRO — Israel "deeply regrets" the deaths of Egyptian security forces who were killed this week in the pursuit of gunmen who had 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 blocks 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 on Saturday afternoon resulted in the joint Israel and Egypt effort to probe the deaths of the 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 maintaining calm in Sinai and Gaza."