Gaza’s Interior Ministry announced a state of alert along its border with Egypt on Thursday after gunmen kidnapped seven Egyptian soldiers and police officers in Sinai.
The Hamas-run ministry said security was heightened in case the kidnappers tried to smuggle the Egyptian servicemen into the Gaza Strip.
Witnesses told Ma’an that Egyptian forces closed seven smuggling tunnels in al-Sarsoryeh, east of Rafah, on the Egypt-Gaza border. Large forces of Egyptian soldiers were seen along the border, witnesses said.
Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi summoned his defense and interior ministers for crisis talks on the kidnapping, the official MENA agency reported.
Early Thursday, gunmen ambushed two minibuses in Wadi al-Akhdar, between el-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid cities, and kidnapped seven Egyptian servicemen en route to Cairo for their monthly vacation, Egyptian security officials told Ma’an.
The three captured policemen are from the Central Security Forces, the branch of the Interior Ministry used to quell protest. The four other men belong to the armed forces.
Egyptian security officials told Ma’an they suspected the kidnappers planned to send the captured servicemen to the Gaza Strip through smuggling tunnels.
The security sources said the gunmen were Jihadists and that they were demanding the release of suspects accused of killing Egyptian officers in an attack on el-Arish police station in August.
An official in Egypt’s Interior Ministry vowed a harsh response if the servicemen were not released.
Local Bedouin leaders have been called in to mediate between authorities and the kidnappers.
A spate of hostage takings, which usually last for no longer than 48 hours, broke out in Sinai after an uprising forced out President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 and battered his security services.
Islamist militants have exploited the lawlessness and upheaval in the Sinai peninsula to establish a launchpad for increasingly brazen attacks on security forces, a key gas export pipeline and on neighboring Israel.
The Sinai kidnappers are usually Bedouin who want to trade the hostages for jailed fellow tribesmen.
Bedouin have recently kidnapped tourists from Hungary, Israeli and Norway in the south of the peninsula, which is dotted with beach resorts, to press for the release of jailed relatives.
Last month, at least two Grad rockets fired from Sinai exploded in the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat.
Over the past few years, there has been intermittent rocket fire on Eilat from Sinai.
In April last year, a rocket fired from Sinai hit Eilat but caused no casualties, with police finding another unexploded rocket near the city days later.
In August, another two rockets rocked Eilat, again injuring no-one.
Since the collapse of Mubarak’s regime, Israel’s border with Sinai has seen multiple security incidents, with militants using the lawless peninsula to stage attacks on Israel.
The most serious incident was in August 2011, when gunmen infiltrated southern Israel and staged a series of ambushes that killed eight Israelis.
(Ma’an – maannews.net)