Eight Egyptian sailors are missing after a Wednesday clash with four vessels that could have been supplying arms to Islamist terror groups in the Sinai Peninsula.
The unusual maritime clash occurred in the Mediterranean Sea 40 miles off the coast of the Egyptian city of Damietta — which is about 40 miles West of Port Said and the entrance to the Suez Canal on Wednesday, according to a translation of a Thursday statement on the Facebook of Egyptian military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir.
The unidentified Egyptian patrol craft came into contact with the four vessels and was fired upon by the quartet injuring five sailors in addition to the loss of the eight other sailors.
A report from the Los Angeles Times said the patrol craft was, “set ablaze.”
Following the initial attack, authorities said additional Egyptian air and naval forces came to the aid of the patrol craft, destroyed the four vessels and captured 32 suspected terrorists.
The search for the eight missing at sea is ongoing, according to Egyptian authorities.
There are few details on the ships that assaulted the patrol craft.
“State-owned Ahram newspaper reported that a naval patrol approached three boats which aroused suspicion and it came under fire, citing an anonymous source saying they were most likely smugglers,” according to a late Thursday story from Agence France-Presse.
“[The report] added that a protest later erupted in a Damietta village after reports that the military arrested fishermen at sea following the exchange of fire.”
At least one maritime expert suspects the ships were part of the ongoing arms trade that has been smuggling weapons to terrorist groups like the anti-Israel group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Hamas in the contested Gaza Strip in Israel.
“It’s highly unlikely this was a planned ambush,” Michael Frodl, head of U.S. consultancy C-Level Maritime Risks told USNI News on Thursday.
“This looks more like fishing boats delivering weapons to Sinai terrorist groups.”
Israel and Egypt have been active in blocking arms shipments through tunnels from the Sinai into the contested Gaza strip, pushing more and more arms shipments to the sea for material for Hamas rockets based in Gaza, according to Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“We continue to see attempts to smuggle weapons or material to build them. The sea is a very convenient platform for smuggling,” IDF Cmdr. Eli Soholitski told The Jerusalem Post in October.
“The terrorists still have one big smuggling tunnel and it’s called the Mediterranean.”