Egypt to create buffer zone along Gaza border
EL ARISH, Egypt // Egypt on Tuesday ordered residents out of their homes in north-east Sinai and prepared to set up a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip.
The controversial move follows months of violence against security forces in the area that culminated in an attack by militants on an army post last week, in which 33 Egyptian soldiers died.
Cairo blames Islamist extremists in Gaza for the violence. After last week’s attack it declared a state of emergency and a 5pm-7am curfew in north-east Sinai, indefinitely closed the Rafah border crossing and called off talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas on cementing the August ceasefire that ended Israel’s 50-day war on the territory.
Residents’ homes will be demolished for the new buffer zone, which is intended to stop weapons and fighters crossing from Gaza. The zone, with water-filled trenches to thwart tunnel diggers, will be 500 metres wide and extend the length of the 13km border.
Army officers spoke to residents in person on Tuesday and initially gave them a 48-hour ultimatum to leave, but put that on hold after they protested. Residents’ groups are now negotiating with local officials for an extension to the deadline.
The Egyptian army has waged a broad offensive in northern Sinai against Islamist militants who have turned several areas into strongholds over the past three years, destroying many of the smuggling tunnels that connected the area with Gaza.
Egyptian media has accused Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, of meddling in Egypt’s affairs. Some suggest Hamas has been supporting fighters inside Egypt since the removal last year of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
Hamas officials deny any interference and criticise Egypt for imposing stricter border crossing rules since then.
Since the removal of Mr Morsi, led by Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the former military chief who is now president, militant attacks against security forces in northern Sinai have escalated.
Egyptian authorities blame the increased violence on Mr Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, which is viewed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia as a terrorist organisation. The Brotherhood denies links to violence.
Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, a militant group inspired by Al Qaeda, has admitted carrying out attacks in northern Sinai, but has not said it was responsible for last week’s attack on the army post.
* Associated Press