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Egypt's border with Gaza stays closed as protest continues

Nearly 170 demonstrators participate in a sit-in after the kidnapping of seven Egyptian soldiers last week in the Sinai Peninsula.

May 19, 2013|By Ingy Hassieb, Los Angeles Times
  • An Egyptian border policeman protests the abduction of seven colleagues last week in northern Sinai. The protest has closed the Gaza Strip border crossing.
An Egyptian border policeman protests the abduction of seven colleagues… (Roger Anis / El Shorouk Newspaper )

CAIRO — Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip remained closed Sunday as the families and colleagues of seven Egyptian soldiers who were kidnapped in the northern Sinai Peninsula last week continued a sit-in.

A video was briefly posted on YouTube showing seven men identified as the abductees, imploring the government to secure their release. "Rescue us, Mr. President. We can't take it. Rescue us, people," the men plead, according to an Associated Press account. It was unclear who posted the video.

Nearly 170 demonstrators have gathered within the confines of the Rafah border crossing to demand that Egyptian authorities rescue the seven, who were abducted Thursday night. It is not clear who captured the soldiers, although suspicion has fallen on Islamist militant groups. The demonstrators have vowed to remain in place and increase in numbers until the soldiers are returned.

"We swore we would not open this crossing or leave this place until these soldiers come back, whether dead or alive," said Osama Ali, one of the officers participating in the sit-in. "We have enough amenities, food and water that would last us a month even if they close down the port with us inside."

Local news reports said the soldiers' captors are demanding that the authorities release at least six fellow tribesmen convicted in an attack on the police station in the North Sinai provincial capital of El Arish, west of Rafah, in July 2011.

Interior Ministry officials said they were not willing to negotiate with the captors, according to state media. They said efforts were continuing to determine the soldiers' whereabouts with the aid of tribal leaders. Neither the head of security nor the governor of North Sinai could be reached for comment.

President Mohamed Morsi met with the interior and defense ministers as well as the head of general intelligence Saturday to discuss ways to secure the soldiers' quick and safe release, according to a statement issued by his office.

However, demonstrators said the authorities have been anything but helpful, concerned only with the problems created by keeping the borders sealed. Those problems include a reported backlog of thousands of Palestinian travelers, including a delegation of Hamas officials who had been in Cairo last week to resume Egypt-sponsored talks between the group and its rival, Fatah.

Ali, the officer, said security officials had threatened to use force to expel the demonstrators from the crossing area and reopen the border.

The Sinai Peninsula, a volatile border area dominated by tribal groups, has witnessed much conflict since Egypt's January 2011 uprising. Last August, 16 Egyptian security personnel were killed by unknown assailants at a checkpoint along the Egypt-Israel border. At least four others died in similar attacks in June and July 2012, but no one was held accountable.

"The state of security [in Egypt] is generally unstable," said Sameh Saif Yazl, the director of the Gomhoreya Center for Political and Security Studies. "Sinai's security is suffering the worst out of all Egypt's 27 governorates, and in the north especially more than the south."

Yazl said the presence of militant Islamist movements in the North Sinai province has further complicated matters.

Lawless groups in the Sinai frequently take refuge in well-concealed mountain areas where security forces could be met with violence.

"We are willing to go and get them," Ali said. "I tell [officials], 'Just tell us where they are and we will take our weapons and get them.'"

Hassieb is a special correspondent.

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