Enraged Egyptian police close Gaza border to protest kidnappings

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Egyptian police closed the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on Friday in protest at the kidnapping of colleagues in the Sinai peninsula, a security source and witnesses said.

Four border policemen working at the Rafah crossing, a riot policeman, and a military border guard were abducted on Thursday by armed men who are demanding the release of a group of prisoners held at a police station in the North Sinai town of El-Arish.

The protest began on Friday when police strung barbed wire across the Rafah border post and chained up the gates, local residents said, a day after the abductions.

The protest also comes a day after President Mohammed Mursi held crisis talks with his defense and interior ministers over the abductions, and as negotiations to secure the release of the servicemen were underway.

The abduction is the first confirmed case in the peninsula.

In 2011, four policemen went missing and their vehicle was found torched on Feb. 4, 2011 in El-Arish city. In a recent TV interview aired on private TV network al-Balad, the wives of two of the missing men claim they were abducted by masked militants and smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels. They claimed that the country’s Interior Minister himself confirmed they are alive and in Gaza.

However, security officials told The Associated Press that the abduction theory has lost support since authorities have failed to establish communication with the abductors, more than two years after their disappearance. A military official says authorities consider the four missing.

At Rafah terminal, one of the protesting policemen said his group plans to keep the crossing closed until their colleagues are freed.

“We are not leaving until those men return. We want Sinai to be secure. We need more police and army. Sinai is under control of the jihadists. The state is absent,” he said over the phone from the crossing. “We are not safe here. The police are afraid. Since the revolution until this minute, nothing has changed or improved.”

He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Another outraged policeman told Reuters that “we will not open the crossing until the kidnapped soldiers are freed and the interior minister arrives to listen to our demands so that these attacks on us are not repeated.”

Authorities say the kidnappers were reacting to the alleged torture of a militant serving a life sentence in prison, and are in contact with mediators to obtain the captives’ release.

It is not clear what the kidnappers want, but a security official says the police officer accused of torturing the militant has been summoned for questioning while the imprisoned militants were reportedly transferred to another prison. The police chief of North Sinai governorate, Gen. Sameh Beshadi, was quoted by daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on Friday as saying that the kidnappers want the release of militants imprisoned over a 2011 attack on a police station.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Ahmed Abu-Sheta, the militant who claims he was tortured until he lost his eyesight, was convicted along with others for involvement in the police station attack that left four dead. One of the kidnappers, identified by security authorities as Kamal Allam, was also sentenced to death in absentia in the same case.

The brother of Abu-Sheta denied that his family has any connection to the abduction in an interview with private-owned daily Al-Watan.

Hardline Islamist groups in North Sinai have exploited the collapse of state authority after the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 to launch attacks across the border into Israel and on Egyptian targets.

The protesting policemen called on Mursi, who is a moderate Islamist, to help free their colleagues.

The kidnappers have already released one policeman, security sources said. They had no word on the six remaining hostages.