JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli troops mistook three Egyptian police officers for Palestinian militants and shot them dead Thursday along the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt, increasing tensions between the neighbors.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to express his “deepest apologies” for the incident and promised a quick investigation. But Egypt did not appear satisfied, issuing a rare statement lambasting Israel.

“Egypt condemns and strongly protests this regrettable incident,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement. “We demand that the Israeli authorities conduct an immediate, thorough and comprehensive investigation into the circumstances that led to this incident, and present an explanation.”

The shooting comes at a sensitive time for Israel and Egypt, two former enemies that signed a peace agreement in 1979 but have had a frigid relationship in recent years.

Aboul Gheit is scheduled to travel to Israel next week for talks on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians amid concerns over stability in Gaza following the death of Yasser Arafat.

The shooting occurred along the volatile “Philadelphi Road,” a patrol road along the border that has seen frequent clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians who smuggle weapons through tunnels from Egypt into the Gaza Strip.

The army said soldiers operating along the border about 1 a.m. spotted three people approaching the fence from the Gaza side and showing clear signs of planning to plant a bomb.

After the sighting was reported, other troops opened fire on three men, the army said. But it wasn’t until Egypt later protested that three of its officers had been killed along the border that the army realized a mistake had been made.

The army acknowledged that the slain policemen were on the Egyptian side of the fence, near the border, and also were about 200 yards from where the militants were spotted.

“There were clear operational and professional errors that occurred,” said Maj. Sharon Feingold, a spokeswoman for the Israeli army.

Egypt’s government said the dead officers were members of the Central Security Forces, a paramilitary unit run by the Interior Ministry. The unit is responsible for preventing arms and drug smuggling across the border, Israel Radio said.

“We are really and truly sorry, and we have offered the Egyptians aid,” said Col. David Menachem, the acting Gaza commander, adding that he hoped the incident would not affect security cooperation with the Egyptians.

One of the issues on the agenda for Aboul Gheit’s visit next week is the desire of Sharon’s government for Egypt to help secure the Gaza Strip after Israeli troops leave the small coastal zone next year.


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