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North Sinai militants kidnap 14 Egyptians deemed supportive of army: Reports

A judge, lawyers and salt plant workers apparently picked up by insurgents on Wednesday in ambushes and roadside raids
Egypt's military, backed by Israeli raids, have failed to root out terrorism rooted in North Sinai despite years-long counter-insurgency operations (AFP)

Armed groups in Egypt’s North Sinai abducted at least 14 civilians on Wednesday in several “ambushes” in the restive region, according to unofficial reports.

The kidnappings come one week after militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group killed eight Egyptian soldiers in the northern Sinai city of Arish.

On Wednesday, activists, journalists, lawyers and Sinai residents said militants kidnapped at least 14 people after setting up checkpoints and ambushes across the peninsula's north.

Middle East Eye has contacted the Egyptian government for comment.

MEE could not independently verify the news due to a state-imposed restriction on journalists' access to the region. However a number of local sources reported the news on social media.

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According to the Union of Sinai Tribes (UST), masked fighters first kidnapped four salt plant workers at noon (10.00 GMT) from the al-Rawda area, which lies to the north of the Arish-Qantara main highway that runs through the northern part of the region.

According to the UST, which says it provides logistical backup to the armed forces in its war against armed militants, IS fighters then confiscated two SUV cars before heading south and fleeing the area.

IS has not claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.

The union's Facebook page identified the workers as belonging to the al-Sawarka tribe - which is known for supporting security forces in their war against insurgents. 

In November 2017, the al-Rawda area was the target of the country's bloodiest terrorist attack, when militants killed more than 300 Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers.

The attack, which was the first time terrorists had targeted a Muslim place of worship in Egypt, prompted President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to issue his armed forces a three-month ultimatum to root out terrorism from North Sinai.

Since then, the counterterror offensive dubbed the Comprehensive Sinai Operation has struggled to root out militants who have claimed hundreds of lives.

Official statements issued by the army have claimed the killing of hundreds of militants.

Ambush at night

The UST said as many as 20 IS fighters set up a checkpoint on the highway at 9pm, shortly after the first round of kidnappings. There they inspected passing vehicles and abducted passengers suspected of collaborating with the Egyptian army, the UST said.

Hisham, a lawyer from Sinai who wanted to be identified only by his first name, said he fortuitously avoided being kidnapped.

In a tweet he posted late Wednesday, Hisham said he was held back in the city of Ismailia - approximately 160km south of al-Rawda - due to delayed paperwork, meaning he was not caught up in the raid.

"Takfiri [militants] set up an ambush on the highway and kidnapped the lawyers who were traveling there. I could have been one of them," he said.

Speaking to Middle East Eye, he explained that lawyers and judges make regular trips to the Suez Canal city of Ismailia to attend trials, as there are no courts in Sinai.

Translation: “God has saved me from a possible calamity… Let me tell you about it. Today I was supposed to go to Cairo but I did not end up going because of unfinished paperwork. I delayed my trip till tomorrow. Today, Takfiri [militants] set up an ambush on the highway and kidnapped the lawyers who were traveling there. I could have been one of them.”

Another lawyer, Ahmed al-Kashef, identified one of the kidnapped men as Judge Mahmoud Said Lotfy.

In a Facebook page, Kashef said Lotfy was kidnapped on the highway along with those accompanying him. Lotfy’s family has taken to Facebook to pray for his safe return.

The UST Facebook page confirmed Lotfy's abduction, and identified several others, urging citizens to share any information they might have on the identities and whereabouts of the perpetrators.

Despite their alliance with the Egyptian army, UST said in a post that the kidnapping "is indicative of weak security in the region, and poor surveillance on its entries and exits".

sinai map

The union said that this is the fifth or sixth kidnapping incident in a year, demanding a "solution for these shambles". 

Local Sinai journalist Abdelkader Mubarak described the kidnappings as "a drastic development of events".

Taking to Facebook, Mubarak said there are reports of "foreign leadership" and "new terrorist elements" arriving to the region and leading terrorist operations from within.