EL-ARISH, Egypt, Aug 10, 2012 (AFP)
EL-ARISH, Egypt, Aug 10, 2012 (AFP)
The Egyptian army massed troops and carried out arrests on Friday to quell increasingly deadly Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula close to the borders with Gaza and Israel.
Egypt also temporarily reopened the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip, which was closed after militants attacked troops last Sunday and killed 16 soldiers.
State news agency MENA said six “terrorist elements” were arrested during patrols in the North Sinai province and a security source branded them as Islamist hardliners suspected of belong to a jihadist group.
But residents of the small Sinai village of Sheikh Zuayyed said nine people were rounded up, with all insisting the men were good Muslims but had no links with Islamic extremists.
One woman told AFP that her husband, Eid Saeed Salama, 72, was feeding his goats when he was taken away.
And a neighbour said government forces stormed her impoverished house and seized her 68-year-old husband Selmi Salama Sweilam who was sleeping, dragging him away “naked.”
“Armed men came in. One of them hit me and I fell to the ground,” she said, adding that the government forces also confiscated 45,000 pounds (around $7,450, 6,000 euros).
An AFP reporter said cupboards had been ransacked and their contents strewn on the floor which was also littered with wheat.
A security official said, however, that authorities will press on with the operation “until we rid the Sinai of terrorism and criminals,” MENA reported.
The agency also reported that authorities have released a Canadian student and two Japanese men who had been arrested in the Sinai after determining they entered the country legally.
Trucks carrying dozens of armored personnel carriers mounted with machine-guns rolled through El-Arish on Thursday and several took up positions in the town.
On Friday, the town of El-Arish near the borders and its environs were calm but tense, an AFP reporter said, with the military deployed in force.
A tank sat behind a barrier of sandbags painted with Egypt’s black, white and red national colors on which was written the slogan “victory or death,” said the reporter.
The buildup comes after state television reported that military helicopters and soldiers killed 20 militants on Wednesday in the first such operation in the Sinai in decades, in retaliation for the raid.
Israel said on Thursday it gave Egypt the go-ahead to deploy helicopters in Sinai, easing the restrictions on military presence in the peninsula under a 1979 peace treaty between the neighbors.
But Bedouin tribal leaders who met with Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal al-Din in El-Arish have cast doubt on the reported killing of militants, and demanded to see the bodies.
“We demanded that they present us the bodies, just one or two bodies, so we can be convinced,” said Eid Abu Marzuka, one of the Bedouin who took part in the meeting.
A resident, Abu Mohammed, also said there was no bloodshed.
“We saw nothing. There were 45 armoured personnel carriers and police vehicles and two helicopters. They fired two rockets but they didn’t hit anything,” said Abu Mohammed.
The tribal leaders said they had agreed to help the military and police to restore security in the lawless peninsula and close down tunnels used to smuggle contraband and weapons to the Gaza Strip.
“There was a consensus among the tribes to destroy the tunnels. Let (the Islamist rulers of Gaza) Hamas be upset, we don’t care. Egypt should deal with the Palestinians through the Rafah border crossing,” said Marzuka.
“We are against smuggling, and against the siege,” he added, referring to the virtual blockade Israel imposed on the enclave after Hamas seized it in 2007.
On Friday, Egyptian state television said the Rafah crossing into Gaza — which was closed after Sunday’s raid — was reopened only to allow Palestinians stuck in Egypt to return to the coastal enclave.
The raid prompted President Mohamed Morsi to sack his intelligence chief and two army generals.
The interior minister said the military would defeat the militants with the help of the Bedouin tribes, who have been hostile toward the central government which they say marginalizes them.
But another senior security official stationed in Sinai acknowledged that they faced an elusive enemy that had the advantage of the peninsula’s formidable mountain and desert terrain.
“It will be gradual,” he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. “The geography, the desert and mountains, will make this difficult.”