CAIRO — Dozens of military and police armored vehicles crossed into Sinai Monday as Cairo beefed up the security presence in the volatile peninsula five days after suspected militants kidnapped six policemen and a border guard there.
Islamist President Mohammed Morsi said all options are open to free the seven men. Officials have said mediators were in touch with the captors.
Egyptian government sources said they know the kidnappers, who are suspected Islamist militants. They said the group abducted the hostages following reports that a jailed colleague was tortured in prison.
Security officials said 17 military and more than 20 police armored vehicles were deployed in northern Sinai Monday as a response to the kidnapping. It was not clear if they were there as a prelude to a rescue attempt.
The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Omar Amer repeated that the presidency is not engaged in negotiations, but said information is “highly sensitive” at this stage and should not be revealed.
“This is a sensitive, important and very critical issue,” he told reporters when asked what the options are to deal with the crisis. “The aim is that those (kidnapped) are released and safely.”
The militants are demanding the release of over twenty prisoners who were arrested over the past two years for their involvement in attacks on security personnel and a bank.
The seven hostages were shown blindfolded and pleading for their release in a video that was posted to the Internet on Sunday. In the video the captured men begged Egyptian authorities to agree to a prisoner exchange in order to save them from the “unbearable torture” they were suffering at the hands of their captors. The hostages also invoked the story of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for five years before ultimately being swapped for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners.
The crisis appears to be eroding the already shaky authority of the state in Sinai.
Disgruntled border policemen there have gone on strike, shutting crossings into the Gaza Strip and Israel to demand the release of their colleagues. Hundreds more policemen joined them Monday, closing down police stations in North Sinai’s capital el-Arish and other towns.
The presence of heavy Egyptian forces is contentious because under the terms of the peace treaty with Israel peninsula to be kept as a partially demilitarized buffer zone, monitored by the Multinational Force and Observers.
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. At the time Egypt sent armored vehicles and tanks to the region with Israeli approval although the latter were later withdrawn.