Egypt: 7 security men kidnapped in Sinai freed
CAIRO (AP) -- Six Egyptian policemen and a border guard kidnapped by suspected militants in the Sinai Peninsula last week were freed by their captors Wednesday after successful mediation in the volatile region, the country's military spokesman said.
The release followed a security buildup and a massive show of force by the Egyptian military in northern Sinai, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.
The seven men were let go in the middle of the desert, and some have already spoken to their families by telephone, according to Egyptian 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 the defense minister and other senior military officials would receive the released hostages at a military airport in the Egyptian capital later Wednesday.
The kidnapping of the seven and the expectations of a massive military operation to free them took center stage in Egyptian politics but also risked triggering a backlash in Sinai, where resentments among the local population against past security crackdowns have fueled the rise of militancy.
Faced with anger among the public and within the security forces over the kidnappings, President Mohammed Morsi said all options were on the table for securing the release of the seven 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 that the kidnappers were demanding the release of 24 convicted militants, some imprisoned since 2005. He called the demands "unacceptable."
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 that the men were believed 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.
The kidnapping last Thursday also highlighted the growing instability in the peninsula. 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.
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.
Associated Press Writers Ashraf Sweilam in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.