CAIRO — Suspected militants in Egypt’s Sinai abducted six security personnel as they headed to Cairo for holidays early today, security officials said, the first such kidnapping of security forces in the increasingly lawless peninsula.
The officials said masked gunmen ambushed two taxis at gunpoint outside the city of el-Arish, the capital of North Sinai governorate, fleeing with five policemen and one border guard captive, none of whom were in uniform. The officials earlier said seven men had been kidnapped but revised the figure after they confirmed one of the policemen was already on holidays.
Criminals and Islamic militant groups have exploited a security vacuum that developed in the Sinai since the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Occasionally, tribal Bedouins would briefly kidnap foreigners to use them as bargaining chips with authorities, urging them to release imprisoned relatives. Islamist militant groups have also exploited the lawlessness to settle scores with security and undermine their hold on the peninsula. Weapons have also flowed to the area from Libya, posing an additional challenge to security forces.
Egypt’s state news agency said President Mohammed Morsi held an emergency meeting with the defense and interior ministers to discuss the kidnapping. Four of the policemen work in the Rafah border terminal leading to the Gaza Strip, and one was in a riot police unit deployed in the peninsula. The border guard was a member of the military.
Security officials say today's kidnapping was carried out by militant groups, known to authorities, who are hiding in the rugged mountain areas in the North Sinai governorate. Two officials said the kidnapping came after the mother of an imprisoned militant said she found her son to be tortured in detention, causing his eye sight to fail. The imprisoned militant is held on charges of attacking a police station in the early days after Mubarak’s ouster.
The officials said authorities were sending the family to visit their son in prison again and provide him with necessary medical attention in a bid to defuse anger over his treatment, and secure the safety of the captive security personnel. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the new instructions with the media.
The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters. They said forces in the Sinai were on high alert, particularly along the border with the Gaza Strip. The officials also said movement was restricted for the multinational forces stationed in Sinai since the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979.
The volatile northern Sinai, where militants often target police stations and security forces, borders Hamas-ruled Gaza as well as Israel. Complicating the situation is a longtime resentment by local tribes toward the central government, which they accuse of discrimination, neglect, and police brutality.
The disorder has made it easier for extremist groups to operate in the area, which is also rife with cross-border weapons, drugs and people trafficking.
Morsi had pledged to restore security to the peninsula. Officials from the presidency at one point negotiated with locals to ease the crackdown and pursuit of fugitives. In exchange, locals were to refrain from attacks on authorities or cross-border raids on Israel.
The U.S. has repeatedly discussed the situation in Sinai with Egyptian authorities and offered security and border control advice.
In August 2012, militants attacked soldiers near the border with Gaza, killing 16 of them in what was the most brazen militant attack on Egypt’s military by in modern history. The perpetrators remain unidentified.