CAIRO — Dozens of Egyptian military and police armored vehicles crossed into Sinai today, beefing up the security presence in the volatile peninsula five days after suspected militants kidnapped six policemen and a border guard there.
The security deployment comes a day after the release of a video of the captive security men, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, pleading for President Mohammed Morsi and his defense minister to free them by granting the kidnappers’ demands.
Morsi has said all options are open to free the seven men and there was no room for dialogue with “criminals,” but officials have also said mediators and local tribesmen have been in touch with the captors. They say they do not know if the deployment is a prelude to a rescue attempt.
The hostage crisis is a new embarrassment for Morsi, already facing political protests and major economic woes. His government vowed to restore security to the peninsula following a major militant attack on troops last year. Today, presidential spokesman Omar Amer repeated that the presidency is not engaged in negotiations, but said any involvement from tribal chiefs or local notables was welcomed.
“This is a sensitive, important and very critical issue,” he told reporters when asked what the options are to deal with the crisis. “Every move must be well-calculated before it is carried out. ... The aim is that those (kidnapped) are safely released.”
“The current circumstances call for intensified security presence,” he said of the deployment.
The kidnapping also highlights the growing instability in the peninsula, particularly the northern part that borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. Criminal gangs, militants and local tribesmen disgruntled with what they say is state discrimination and heavy-handed security crackdowns have exploited the security vacuum brought by Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Armed groups smuggle weapons, attack security forces and kidnap tourists to trade for relatives held in Egyptian jails.
Security officials said they know the kidnappers, who are suspected Islamist militants. They said the group abducted the hostages following reports that a jailed colleague was tortured in prison. Once they had the captives, a person familiar with the negotiations says, they demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners from Sinai, some of whom have been held since before the 2011 ouster of authoritarian leader Hosni Mu-barak.
Security officials said 17 military and more than 20 police armored vehicles and personnel carriers were deployed in northern Sinai today as a response to the kidnapping. It was not clear if they were there as a prelude to a rescue attempt.
Early today, gunmen opened fire on a police camp along the border with Gaza, forcing troops to return fire. No one was injured, officials said.
A senior security official in Cairo said there were no orders to start a rescue operation and that mediated negotiations appear to be the preferred option so far.
The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Several members of jihadi and ultraconservative Islamist groups as well as local tribesmen have been involved in the negotiations.
Mohammed Abu Samra, a member of the Islamic Party who is familiar with the talks, said a security operation would complicate matters and put the military in direct confrontation with local tribes and criminals. He said security officials and local groups are still keeping in touch with the captors.
“There is nothing wrong with negotiations. It is not a shame,” Abu Samra, whose party is the political arm of Islamic Jihad, which itself fought the government in the 1990s.
In a statement late Sunday, Morsi stressed the “need to quickly release the kidnapped security, protect their lives and in a way that preserves the state’s prestige.”
The crisis appears to be eroding the already shaky authority of the state in Sinai.
Disgruntled border policemen there have gone on strike, shutting crossings into the Gaza Strip and Israel to demand the release of their colleagues. Hundreds more policemen joined them today, closing down police stations in North Sinai’s capital, el-Arish, and other towns.