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Egypt to send troops to Sinai to free kidnapped officers

May 18, 2013 12:52 P.M. (Updated: May 19, 2013 6:42 P.M.)
CAIRO (Ma'an) -- Egypt's defense minister will send a large combat force to Sinai within 48 hours to free seven kidnapped Egyptian servicemen, a source in his office said Saturday.

The decision to send in the troops came after unsuccessful efforts to negotiate the release of the soldiers and police, a senior defense ministry official told Ma'an.

Local Bedouin leaders had been called in to mediate after gunmen ambushed two minibuses in Sinai's Wadi al-Akhdar early Thursday and kidnapped seven members of Egyptian security forces.

The captors are demanding the release of all suspects arrested on suspicion of attacks in Sinai, including an August attack on the el-Arish police station that killed 16 Egyptian officers, the defense ministry official said.

Egyptian intelligence officers believe the kidnapped officers are held in different locations. Sources in the intelligence services told Ma'an that some locations had been identified and that Egyptian security forces were preparing to attack the areas to free the soldiers.

Border crossing, airport closed

Egyptian security forces closed the airport and seaport in Sinai's el-Arish on Saturday in protest at the kidnapping of their colleagues.

The Rafah crossing on Gaza's border remained shut for the second day on Saturday as Egyptian police closed the gates, also in protest at the kidnappings.

Four of the captured servicemen worked at the Rafah crossing, sources at the terminal told Ma'an.

Egypt's Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim dispatched his assistant to Rafah to convince police to reopen the crossing, but police refused to let the ministry official enter the terminal, a Ma'an reporter said.

The minister's assistant spoke with police at the crossing gates, and the officers told him they would not reopen the border until their colleagues were released.

Maher Abu Sabha, the general director of crossings and borders, said 800 Palestinians were stranded on the Egyptian side of the crossing on Saturday morning.

The number was expected to reach 1,000 by the end of the day. Most travelers are waiting for the crossing to reopen in hotels in el-Arish. They include sick people who had received medical treatment abroad, pilgrims and students who study abroad.

The governor of North Sinai, Abed al-Fatah Harhur, held an emergency meeting with North Sinai security chief Samih Bashadi and security and military officials to discuss the next steps if Egyptian police refuse to reopen the Rafah crossing.

Egyptian forces stepped up a campaign to close tunnels along the border amid concerns the captured servicemen would be smuggled into the Gaza Strip.

Four tunnels were closed on Friday in the al-Sarsoryeh area near Rafah, a Ma'an reporter said. Egyptian security officials told Ma'an that around 15 tons of cement and large quantities of cigarettes were seized from the tunnels.

Egyptian forces closed seven tunnels in the same area on Thursday.

Gaza's Interior Ministry announced a state of alert along its border with Egypt on Thursday in case the kidnappers tried to smuggle the Egyptian servicemen into Gaza.

Early Thursday, gunmen ambushed two minibuses in Wadi al-Akhdar, between el-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid cities, and kidnapped seven Egyptian servicemen en route to Cairo for their monthly vacation, Egyptian security officials told Ma'an.

Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi on Thursday summoned his defense and interior ministers for crisis talks on the kidnappings at the presidential palace.

A spate of hostage takings, which usually last for no longer than 48 hours, broke out in Sinai after an uprising forced out President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 and battered his security services.

Islamist militants have exploited the lawlessness and upheaval in the Sinai peninsula to establish a launchpad for increasingly brazen attacks on security forces, a key gas export pipeline and on neighboring Israel.

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