Egyptian troops prepared for a large-scale military operation to free seven kidnapped security officers Saturday, as anger over the incident left hundreds of Palestinians stranded outside Gaza and stoked regional tensions.
On Thursday, Egyptian policemen and a border officer were nabbed at gunpoint while traveling between Rafah, near the Gaza border, and el-Arish in the northern Sinai.
On Saturday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi ordered a military operation to free the officers after negotiations with the kidnappers broke down, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported.
A security officer told the agency that the operation would begin once the location of all seven and identities of the kidnappers was determined. The abducted officers are thought to be held in different locations, though the security source said several of them have already been located.
Earlier in the day, Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he would send a large contingent of troops to secure the peninsula within 48 hours, Ma’an reported.
The buildup could mark the largest militarization in the peninsula since August 2012, when Egypt carried out a massive operation in an effort to clean the area of Islamist terrorists following an attack on a Rafah border police station that left 16 dead.
The peninsula was largely unpoliced until last year as part of Israel’s peace accord with Egypt, which called for the peninsula to be kept as a partially demilitarized buffer zone, monitored by the Multinational Force and Observers.
On Friday, the movement of officers and soldiers serving in the MFO was restricted and a state of alert declared. It was also decided to reinforce and arm outposts in the area, Egyptian media reported.
Egyptian police angry over the kidnapping shuttered the border crossing into Gaza on Friday and Saturday in protest, stranding hundreds of Palestinians unable to return home to Gaza.
At Rafah terminal on Friday, one of the protesting policemen said that they will keep it closed until their colleagues are freed.
“We are not leaving until those men return. We want Sinai to be secure. We need more police and army. Sinai is under control of the jihadists. The state is absent,” he said over the phone from the crossing. “We are not safe here. The police are afraid. Since the revolution until this minute, nothing has changed or improved.”
He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The kidnappers are reportedly demanding the release of jihadists being held in Egyptian jails, though reports differ as to their exact demands.
Egypt’s Ahram news outlet reported that the kidnappers are seeking the release of members of the Tawhid wal-Jihad group, which were responsible for a string of attacks in northern Sinai in 2011 that left six dead, including five policemen.
According to Ma’an, however, the kidnappers want the release of all jihadists being held by Egypt, including those arrested in connection with the attack on the Rafah police station.
That attack was stopped by the Israel Defense Forces after the terrorists infiltrated the border in stolen armored personnel carriers. The incident marked a turning point in the Sinai, leading to the largest military presence in the peninsula since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt invaded the then-Israeli held territory.
Jerusalem reportedly expressed concern over the presence of tanks in the Sinai last year and fears that Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood would not honor the Camp David peace accords.
Many of the attacks emanating from the peninsula have targeted Israel, though lawlessness in the Sinai is also linked to political discontent. Local tribes accuse the central government of discrimination, neglect, and police brutality.
Morsi has presided over the military operations but has also signaled that he prefers mediation. On Thursday, he called for the “protection of the lives” of both the “abducted and the kidnappers” and said that the solutions to Sinai’s problems should not be through “abductions and terrorizing citizens.”
Bedouin tribes in the area, some of which have been known to briefly kidnap westerners to push for the release of relatives from prison, were called in to mediate in negotiations between Cairo and the kidnappers.
According to Egypt’s state-run MENA news agency, tribal spokespeople denied any involvement in the attack and said they would assist Egypt’s security forces.
Adiv Sterman and the Associated Press contributed to this report.