With kidnapped soldiers released, Egyptian officials optimistic about Sinai future

Ahram Online, Wednesday 22 May 2013

Authorities pay tribute to the role of Sinai tribal leaders in the release of soldiers kidnapped last week, promising development; security operations in the peninsula will continue

Egyptian army tanks deploy in North Sinai in 2012 in the aftermath of killing of 16 soldiers in August (Photo: Reuters)

Egyptian authorities have voiced optimism over the future of turmoil-hit Sinai in the wake of the release of seven soldiers who were held in captivity for almost a week.

Unpleasant scenarios were outlined after Egyptian security personnel (a conscript of the armed forces and six police personnel) were kidnapped last Thursday.

In contrast to gloomy expectations, however, the hostages were freed, safe and sound, early Wednesday morning, prompting authorities to make promises of addressing the development gap in Sinai.

President Mohamed Morsi said during a news conference that the crisis, "despite being painful, would be a starting point for development in the peninsula."

Security operations to continue

For his part, North Sinai Security Chief Samih Bashadi said security forces would continue to combat "outlaws" in Sinai, with Morsi stressing that military reinforcements in the peninsula would stay put.

Military spokesperson Colonel Ahmed Ali echoed similar sentiments, saying that "freeing the soldiers was only one step in our operation."

Authorities nonetheless abstained from saying whether or not the militants culpable for kidnappings would be targeted, Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.

A troubled peninsula

The Sinai Peninsula has been plagued with a chronic security vacuum and since the 2011 revolution, witnessing frequent clashes between heavily-armed tribal militants and security forces.

Some Sinai residents seek revenge on security forces after years of heavy-handed security policies under Mubarak-era interior minister Habib El-Adly, who many accused of failing to respect human rights and local traditions.

Tourists are frequently kidnapped in Sinai by residents who want grievances addressed, with hostages usually released unharmed.

In August, 2012, 16 Egyptian border guards were killed in an attack by unknown assailants.

Last Thursday's incident was the first time for soldiers to be abducted.

The kidnapping of soldiers is believed to have been carried out in response to alleged torture by police of an Islamist militant arrested in the summer of 2011.

Coordinated release efforts

The details of the hostages' release have not been officially confirmed. A senior military source said that the Egyptian army used a diversion strategy to secure the release of the hostages.

"The armed forces executed a diversion strategy by sending out mixed information through news agencies," the source told Al-Ahram Arabic news website.

"They (tribal leaders) were also the ones who persuaded the kidnappers to release the soldiers in the desert."

According to military spokesperson Colonel Ali, military intelligence officials played a key role in the operation to free the soldiers, who were abducted in North Sinai's capital, Al-Arish.

President Morsi, who received the freed hostages upon their arrival in Cairo, paid tribute to local tribal leaders for their support, without elaborating on their means of backing authorities.

The senior military source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "Tribal leaders coordinated with military intelligence. They refuse to cover for the kidnappers and informed them that they will not support them."

Presidential spokesperson Ihab Fahmy said that the soldiers’ rescue came without any negotiations with the militants who kidnapped them, and with the cooperation of all state institutions.

Fahmy also announced that Egyptian authorities know the identities of the kidnappers, saying the security operation in Sinai did not start in the last 48 hours, but rather has been ongoing since the attack on the soldiers in August 2012.

He also stressed that the operation in Sinai is not over, calling on the Egyptian nation to stand united.

Release of kidnapped widely welcomed

The release of the seven kidnapped soldiers was hailed by different parties and figures from across the country's political spectrum — usually at odds due to ongoing political struggles — as a victory for Egypt's military/security apparatus.

Regional leaders, meanwhile, including Ismail Haniyeh, head of Gaza's Hamas-led government, congratulated the Egyptian people and leadership on the soldier's release, which he described as "proof" of Egypt's ability to protect its sovereignty.

However, several Egyptian political figures voiced concerns over the current situation in Sinai.

Magdy Hamdan, a leading member of the National Salvation Front, said he was concerned a deal might have been struck between the Muslim Brotherhood regime and the abductors.

Spokesman for the Free Egyptians party Shehab Wagih said the release of the security personnel "will not enhance the reputation of President Morsi, nor that of the army."

"I demand that Morsi reveal his plans for developing Sinai. Otherwise, people will question his intentions," he added.

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