Seven members of the Egyptian security forces kidnapped by Islamist militants in Sinai last week were released on Wednesday, ending a crisis that has highlighted lawlessness in the desert peninsula bordering Israel.
Security sources said the men were freed following talks mediated by Bedouin tribal leaders. They were handed over to the army in an area south of Rafah, a town straddling the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
The kidnappers had demanded the release of members of an Islamist group convicted last September of carrying out a series of attacks in North Sinai in 2011 that killed seven people.
The abduction pointed to the threat still posed by radical Islamists who expanded into a security vacuum in Sinai that the state has struggled to fill since an uprising swept autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011. The groups have launched attacks on Israel and targets in North Sinai.
“I salute the commanders and soldiers of the armed forces, the police, the general and military intelligence,” President Mohamed Mursi wrote on Twitter after the men’s release.
A security official in Sinai and a Bedouin sheikh involved in the mediation said the kidnappers’ demand had not been met. The militants had decided to release the men because they feared a confrontation with the armed forces, they said.
The crisis had piled domestic pressure on the Islamist president to act and enraged Egyptian security forces who have closed border crossings to Gaza and Israel in protest. Earlier this week, Mursi said there would be no negotiations with militants he described as criminals.
A statement posted on the army spokesman’s Facebook page on Wednesday said the seven captives had been freed “as a result of the efforts of the military intelligence in cooperation with the tribal leaders and the honorable people of Sinai” and were on their way to Cairo. It gave no further details.
The army sent reinforcements to Sinai this week as part of its efforts to secure the release of the men – six policemen and one soldier – who were kidnapped last Thursday as they traveled between the North Sinai towns of El-Arish and Rafah.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt – closed for five days by border Egyptian security officers angered at the kidnapping – was reopened early on Wednesday. Two of the captives had worked at the crossing.
Egyptian security forces launched a security operation to re-establish control in Sinai last August after an attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards.