Six Egyptian policemen and a border guard kidnapped by suspected terrorists in the volatile Sinai Peninsula last week were freed by their captors Wednesday after successful mediation, the country's military spokesman said.
The release followed a security buildup and a massive show of force by the military in northern Sinai, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. The seven men were let go in the middle of the desert in the early hours Wednesday, and some were able later to speak to their families by telephone, according to officials and state TV.
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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 honorable tribal leaders and Sinairesidents."
Protesters urge captives' release (Photo: AFP)
President Mohammed Morsi received the men at a military air base in a Cairo suburb to where they were flown from Sinai. Morsi, Egypt's first civilian president, embraced and kissed each one of them as they disembarked from a military helicopter.
Morsi had earlier thanked the armed forces, security agencies and the people of Sinai for their efforts to secure the release of the seven, state TV reported. Prime Minister Hesham Kandil and Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi were also on hand to receive the men.
Large-scale military operation in Sinai (Photo: Reuters)
It was not immediately clear if 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 imprisoned since 2005. He called the demands "unacceptable."
A senior security official told the state news agency MENA 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.
Military forces in Rafah (Photo: AFP)
The official did not elaborate but in the past, tribal leaders in Sinai have been known to mediate between authorities and Bedouin tribesmen behind kidnapping of foreign tourists.
On Monday, military and police reinforcements backed by armored vehicles and helicopters moved into northern Sinai in a show of strength, deploying heavily around the provincial capital, el-Arish. A joint military and police carried out a sweep backed by helicopter cover on Tuesday in several villages along the border with Israel.
A security official told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the men were believed to have been held in that area, and were let go by their captors there. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talks to the media.
During the sweep, troops and police mistakenly fired on a Bedouin funeral in Sinai on Tuesday. No one was injured, and a military official offered an apology, but the incident highlighted the risks of a heavy handed attempt to free the captives.
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