President Mohammed Morsi, center, in Cairo embraces a soldier who had been… (Associated Press )
CAIRO — Seven Egyptian soldiers who had been abducted in the Sinai last week were set free by their captors early Wednesday amid conflicting reports as to how their release was secured.
Many local news websites reported that tribe leaders in the Sinai mediated negotiations between authorities and the abductors. But the office of Egypt’s president denied reports that concessions were made to win their release.
“The seven abducted Egyptian soldiers are on their way to Cairo after they were released as a result of the efforts of the Egyptian military intelligence in cooperation with the honorable tribal leaders and residents of Sinai,” Egypt’s military spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali, had posted on his official Facebook page earlier.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who personally greeted the soldiers upon their arrival to the Almaza military airbase in Cairo, praised Egypt’s security and armed forces, as well as Sinai’s residents for their help securing the soldiers’ safe return.
At a news conference Wednesday, spokespersons for the presidency, police and military said the abductors’ identities were known and that authorities would pursue them in full force. Egypt’s armed forces had bolstered their presence in Sinai over the week after the abductions last Thursday.
Ali told the news conference that freeing the soldiers took time because officials wanted to keep everyone involved safe.
The Middle East News Agency quoted Ali saying in a statement following the news conference that military intelligence broadcast conflicting reports about the operation in the Sinai to mislead the abductors and ensure the success of efforts to win the soldiers’ return.
“No one really knows anything,” said Osama Ali, a policeman who had been part of a sit-in to seek freedom for the soldiers. “They just said that the soldiers were at the general intelligence office in [the Sinai city of] Arish and that they had left to Cairo, but they did not inform us of any details as to how they were freed or how they made it there.”
A Sinai tribal sheik who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons said the kidnappers released the soldiers after authorities promised that alleged injustices committed against Sinai residents would be investigated.
“How else would they have secured their release with the help of locals? The locals helped negotiate a deal,” the sheik said.
Sinai residents maintain that some people have been the subject of unjustified arrests, court cases, and prison sentences, leading to anger among locals toward authorities and especially the police.
“The sons of Sinai suffered under Mubarak because the police would arrest everyone and anyone just to fill a specific quota,” the sheik said. “Many people here are fugitives who were sentenced unfairly because of a corrupt system.”
Egyptian law also forbids Sinai residents from owning land, a policy they see as discriminatory, meant to keep the Bedouin communities marginalized and separate from the rest of Egypt.
Sinai’s state of underdevelopment has been an issue of concern for Egypt. Activists and politicians urged authorities to begin paying closer attention to the provinces’ needs and begin a much-needed process of development.
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