CAIRO (AP) — Six Egyptian policemen and a border guard kidnapped by suspected militants in the volatile Sinai Peninsula last week were freed by their captors Wednesday after successful mediation, the country’s military spokesman said.
The release followed a security buildup and a massive show of force by the military in northern Sinai, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. The seven men were let go in the middle of the desert in the early hours Wednesday, and some have already spoken to their families by telephone, according to officials and state TV.
Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali, the military spokesman, said on the army’s official Facebook page that the release came about as a “result of efforts by military intelligence, in cooperation with the honorable tribal leaders and Sinai residents.”
The seven were on their way to Cairo following their release, Ali said. State TV said President Mohammed Morsi, the defense minister and other senior military officials would receive them in the Egyptian capital later in the day. Morsi thanked the armed forces, security agencies and the people of Sinai for their efforts to secure the release of the men, the TV reported.
Over the past week, the kidnapping and the expectations of a massive military operation to free the hostages took center stage in Egyptian politics but also risked triggering a backlash in Sinai, where resentment among the local population against past security crackdowns has fueled the rise of militancy.
Calls for a tough response were fueled by a video released last week on YouTube showing the captives blindfolded and pleading for Morsi to meet the kidnappers’ demands and release of scores of prisoners from the Sinai, including convicted militants.
Faced with anger among the public and within the security forces over the kidnappings, Morsi had said that all options were on the table and that the presidency would not negotiate with the kidnappers. But several officials said mediators were in contact with the kidnappers to secure their release.
It was not immediately clear if Wednesday’s release was a sign that the captors’ demands would be met. Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said Tuesday the kidnappers were demanding the release of 24 convicted militants, some imprisoned since 2005. He called the demands “unacceptable.”
A senior security official told the state news agency MENA that the release was a coordinated effort between security agencies. He said plans involved “closing in on the kidnappers, security sweeps, and intensive deployment.” The unnamed official said security agencies as well as families and tribes in Sinai were in contact with the kidnappers.
The official did not elaborate but in the past, tribal leaders in Sinai have been known to mediate between authorities and Bedouin tribesmen behind kidnapping of foreign tourists.
On Monday, military and police reinforcements backed by armored vehicles and helicopters moved into northern Sinai in a show of strength, deploying heavily around the provincial capital, el-Arish. A joint military and police carried out a sweep backed by helicopter cover on Tuesday in several villages along the border with Israel.
A security official told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the men were believed to have been held in that area, and were let go by their captors there. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talks to the media.
During the sweep, troops and police mistakenly fired on a Bedouin funeral in Sinai on Tuesday. No one was injured, and a military official offered an apology, but the incident highlighted the risks of a heavy handed attempt to free the captives.
The kidnapping last Thursday also highlighted the growing instability in Sinai. Criminal gangs, militants and local tribesmen disgruntled with what they say is state discrimination and heavy-handed security crackdowns have exploited the security vacuum brought by Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Armed groups smuggle weapons, attack security forces and kidnap tourists to trade for relatives held in Egyptian jails.
Essam el-Erian, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, welcomed the release of the seven men and lauded both the security agencies and the Sinai tribes. He appealed for future cooperation, saying on his Facebook page: “Regards to all and our families in Sinai who will seriously assist in cleansing Sinai from all the criminal spots.”
Liberal politician and former lawmaker Amr Hamzawy also lauded the release, calling it a “successful crisis management.”
“Now this success must be invested to deal comprehensively with the Sinai issues, which shook state sovereignty and national security, and where grievances have accumulated and development lacked,” Hamzawy wrote on his Twitter account.
Morsi faced his first Sinai challenge in August last year, just over a month after taking office, when militants carried out the most brazen attack ever on military troops, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers along the border with Gaza and Israel.
At the time, Morsi vowed to restore stability, launching a brief military operation that resulted in the closures of some smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza and the arrest of the man believed to be at the heart of the current kidnapping, Ahmed Abu Shita.
Abu Shita was convicted to death in absentia in September for involvement in a major attack on a northern Sinai police station in 2011 that left three policemen dead. Thirteen others, including seven others in absentia, were also given death sentences in the case.
Ibrahim said the kidnappers were too well-armed to be confronted by the police force alone. He said the kidnappers had planned the operation for two months in advance and were armed with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other heavy weaponry smuggled from Libya.
Disgruntled policemen in northern Sinai have protested their colleagues’ kidnapping, closing the only passenger crossing between Gaza and Egypt in Rafah, and briefly forcing shut a commercial terminal with Israel.
Palestinian Gaza border official Maher Abu Sabha said the Rafah terminal will reopen Wednesday.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.