A state of high alert was declared Friday by international peacekeeping forces operating in the Sinai Peninsula, in response to the kidnapping of seven Egyptian soldiers on Thursday.
According to Egyptian media reports, the movement of officers and soldiers serving in the MFO (Multinational Force and Observers) has been restricted. It was also decided to reinforce and arm outposts in the area.
Earlier Friday, dozens of disgruntled Egyptian border policemen forced the closure of Egypt’s main crossing point into the Gaza Strip to protest the abduction of their colleagues by suspected militants, underscoring the country’s lawlessness and its crisis of authority two years since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
The police protest came one day after masked gunmen ambushed two taxis at gunpoint outside the city of el-Arish, the capital of North Sinai governorate. The men fled with four border policemen who worked at the Rafah crossing, a riot policeman, and a military border guard. Officials have not identified a seventh captive.
At Rafah terminal, 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.
Authorities say the kidnappers were reacting to the alleged torture of a militant sentenced to death in prison, and are in contact with mediators to negotiate the captives’ release.
The militant, named Hamada Abu-Sheta, was convicted along with 11 others for their alleged involvement in a 2011 attack on a police station that left four dead. One of the kidnappers was identified by security authorities as Karim Allam, also sentenced to death in the same case, in absentia.
Lawlessness in the Sinai has increased after the breakdown of the country’s formerly powerful security forces.
Islamic militants have stepped up attacks on police stations and security convoys. Bedouin tribal gangs are involved in smuggling and other criminal activity. A flow of weapons from Libya’s 2011 civil war has emboldened armed groups.
The killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in August last year at the hands of masked militants marked a turning point in the Sinai. The military conducted several anti-militant sweeps but no attackers have been publicly identified.
Lawlessness in the Sinai is also linked to political discontent. Local tribes accuse the central government of discrimination, neglect, and police brutality.
Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed 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.”