Bedouins test weapons in mountainous region of central Sinai. (Photo: Reuters)
An international peacekeeping force remained surrounded by armed Bedouins in the Sinai desert Wednesday, senior Uruguayan officials said. The Bedouins hoped their show of force would lead to the release of five Egyptian terror suspects.
About 300 Bedouins armed with automatic rifles mounted on pickup trucks surrounded the camp, where hundreds of Colombian, US and Uruguayan soldiers are stationed to monitor compliance with an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
An official with the peacekeeping force said there has been no shooting, even as the Bedouins blocked the main road leading up to the camp and tore barbed wire outside. The forces were in a state of alert and had increased their security, the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to brief reporters.
An Uruguayan statement said the Bedouins also burned tires and stationed their guns around the four corners of the camp.
As for the peacekeepers, "all are well, with food, ammunition, good morale," said Gen. Pedro Aguerre, the Uruguayan armed forces chief. He said the soldiers are highly trained and are prepared to use contingency plans if the situation worsens.
The group is trying to pressure Egypt to release five Bedouins facing retrial and a sentence of death or life in prison after being convicted of terrorism in 2005 bombing attacks in Sharm El-Sheik in southern Sinai.
At least two days of negotiations have apparently failed to resolve the standoff. Both sides are waiting for Egypt's response.
"The important thing is to see how Egypt resolves the negotiation with the Bedouins," said Uruguay's foreign minister, Luis Almagro. He said he had been in contact with the embassies of Egypt, the United States and Israel seeking more information.
Uruguay said 22 of the 58 Uruguayans had been allowed to evacuate, and that 300 Colombians and 80 US soldiers also had been inside the base. The Uruguayans offered no more details on them.
Colombia's defense ministry referred questions to the foreign ministry, which also declined to comment.
The overall force, set up under the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979, has 1,400 soldiers from 14 nations, including 800 US peacekeepers, who patrol the entire Sinai. The force official declined to provide any details about the soldiers under siege.