(AFP) The Egyptian military said one of its navy vessels came under “terrorist” attack in the Mediterranean on Wednesday, leaving five servicemen injured and eight others missing at sea.
Four boats used by the assailants were destroyed and 32 of the suspected militants were arrested, the military said in a statement.
The Egyptian government is fighting an Islamist militant insurgency that has killed scores of policemen and soldiers, but a maritime attack is unprecedented.
An earlier report on the official MENA news agency reported that a naval vessel had been set alight in an exchange of fire with assailants about 70 kilometres (45 miles) from Egypt’s shore.
It said the air force was called in to deal with the assailants.
The military said it was a “terrorist” attack that took place on Wednesday morning off the coast of the Damietta province in the country’s north east.
The military said it destroyed “four boats used by the armed assailants, including terrorists, and arrested 32 people”.
Those captured were under interrogation, the statement added.
It was not immediately clear what the naval boat was doing so far offshore, and whether it was on a routine patrol anticipated by militants.
A military source told AFP the assailants used “fishing boats” and did not appear to have deployed rocket propelled grenades or heavier weapons.
The Mediterranean Sea is used by drug traffickers and illegal migrant smugglers who have been intercepted by the Egyptian navy in the past.
There have been no recorded attacks at sea by the Sinai-based militants who launched an insurgency after the army overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year.
Wednesday’s incident comes days after the main militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State organisation in Iraq and Syria.
The group has focused its attacks on troops in Sinai, but have occasionally struck with car bombings and ambushes across the country.
Its pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State was the most significant regional show of support for the militants who control swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Created during the security vacuum following veteran Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in early 2011, Anar Beit al-Maqdis has displayed increasing sophistication in its attacks despite a massive military crackdown.
It is believed to have been behind a multi-stage attack on an army checkpoint in North Sinai last month that killed at least 30 soldiers, and wounded a senior officer. Several of its members who carried out attacks, including an attempt to assassinate the interior minister last year, have previously fought and trained alongside Islamist rebels in Syria.