Egyptian flag
Egyptian flagiStock

Egypt on Sunday denied Arab media reports that it had a military presence in Syria.

"These claims only exist in the imagination of those who promote them," the foreign ministry said in a statement quoted by AFP.

It was referring to a report last Thursday in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which said that 18 Egyptian air force pilots had been deployed on a military base in the Syrian central province of Hama.

The report added, however, that it was "unclear" whether they were taking part in any military operations.

The report came days after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the former army chief who was elected president in 2014, expressed support for the Syrian military during an interview with Portuguese broadcaster RTP.

"Our priority is to support national armies, for example in Libya to assert control over Libyan territories and deal with extremist elements. The same with Syria and Iraq," he said, responding to a question on whether Egypt would contemplate a UN peacekeeping role in Syria.

Asked by the interviewer whether he meant the Syrian military, Sisi, who has overseen a warming of ties with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's main he responded, "Yes."

That position puts Sisi at odds with his country's Gulf benefactors like Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia backs rebels trying to oust Assad, while Russia and Iran are supporting him militarily.

Saudi Arabia suspended oil shipments to Egypt in October, a move announced after Cairo backed a Russian-drafted resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council, angering Riyadh.

Before that, Cairo's cash-strapped government and Riyadh reached a deal according to which the two strategic Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran would be transferred to Saudi control.

AFP reported, meanwhile, that Syrian security services chief Ali Mamluk made a surprise visit to Cairo in October and met Egyptian officials, in his first public foreign visit in five years.