x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Seven Egyptian security personnel freed by Sinai kidnappers

Six Egyptian policemen and a border guard are released, after successful mediation, Egypt's military spokesman said.

CAIRO // Six Egyptian policemen and a border guard kidnapped by suspected militants in the volatile Sinai Peninsula last week were freed by their captors today after successful mediation, the country's military spokesman said.

The release followed a security build up and a massive show of force by the military in northern Sinai, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. The seven men were freed in the middle of the desert early Wednesday, and some were able later to speak to their families by telephone, according to officials and state TV.

Col Ahmed Mohammed Ali, the military spokesman, said on the army's official Facebook page that the release came about as a "result of efforts by military intelligence, in cooperation with the honourable tribal leaders and Sinai residents."

President Mohammed Morsi gave the men a red-carpet welcome at a military airbase in a Cairo suburb to where they were flown from Sinai. Mr Morsi, Egypt's first civilian president, embraced each one of them as they disembarked from a military helicopter. Hesham Kandil, the prime minister, and Abdul Fatah Al Sissi, the defence minister, were also on hand to receive the men.

Mr Morsi later thanked the armed forces, security agencies as well as the people of Sinai and their tribal chiefs for their efforts to secure the release of the seven men.

He said efforts to free them provided an "example to follow of cooperation, planning, execution and of how the nation's interests come first." The president also vowed to hunt down the kidnappers, saying "there will be no going back on bringing the criminals to account."

"This event will be a departure point for all of us to solve the problems of Sinai, its people and to develop Sinai," he said.

Over the past week, the kidnapping and the expectations of a massive military operation to free the hostages took centre stage in Egyptian politics but also risked triggering a backlash in Sinai, where resentment among the local population against past security crackdowns has fuelled the rise of militancy.

Calls for a tough response were fuelled by a video released last week on YouTube showing the captives blindfolded and pleading for Morsi to meet the kidnappers' demands and release of scores of prisoners from Sinai, including convicted militants.

Faced with anger among the public and within the security forces over the kidnappings, Morsi had said that all options were on the table and that the presidency would not negotiate with the kidnappers. But several officials said mediators were in contact with the kidnappers to secure their release.

It was not immediately clear whether Wednesday's release was a sign that the captors' demands would be met. Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said Tuesday the kidnappers were demanding the release of 24 convicted militants, some jailed since 2005. He called the demands "unacceptable."

A senior security official told the state news agency that the release was a coordinated effort between security agencies. He said plans involved "closing in on the kidnappers, security sweeps, and intensive deployment." The unnamed official said security agencies as well as families and tribes in Sinai were in contact with the kidnappers.

The official did not elaborate, but in the past, tribal leaders in Sinai have been known to mediate between authorities and Bedouin tribesmen behind kidnappings of foreign tourists.