Egypt tribes back offensive against militants in Sinai

Egyptian armoured personnel carriers on the Sinai peninsula (8 Aug 2012) Egypt has been building up its troop presence in the region over the past week

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Bedouin tribal leaders in Egypt's Sinai peninsula have agreed to help restore security in the lawless border area with the Gaza Strip and Israel.

In talks with Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal al-Din, they also backed plans to destroy smuggling tunnels into Gaza.

The move comes as Egyptian troops mass in the area in an operation to contain Islamist militants who have built up a presence there.

The militants are suspected of killing 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday.

Egypt has deployed extra troops, tanks and other armoured vehicles.

It also closed the Rafah border with the Gaza Strip following the killings. The border - the only way in or out of the enclave without passing through Israel - was reopened on Friday, but only for Palestinians wishing to return to Gaza.

Start Quote

Let Hamas be upset, we don't care”

End Quote Eid Abu Marzuka Tribal leader

Also on Friday, military sources said six suspected militants had been arrested in the Sinai region. It was not immediately clear whether they were linked to the border attack.

Egypt's state-run Nile TV put the number arrested at nine.

Border control

Mr Gamal al-Din met the tribal leaders late on Thursday night at al-Arish, about 50km (30 miles) west of the Gaza border, to ask for their support.

He later told reporters: "With the help of the people [of Sinai], the mission will succeed."

Sheikh Atef Zayed, a member of al-Rishad tribe, said all present had pledged to support the military's operation. "Egypt's security is a part of Sinai's security," Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

Another tribal leader, Eid Abu Marzuka, said the tribes had also reached a consensus that the tunnels should be destroyed.

A tunnel linking Egypt and Gaza outside Rafah City (9 Aug 2012) There are believed to be hundreds of smuggling tunnels in Sinai

"Let Hamas be upset, we don't care," he said, of the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Mr Marzuka said Egypt's contact with Palestinians in Gaza should be through the Rafah crossing.

"We are against smuggling, and against the siege," he added, referring to Israel's blockade of the enclave.

There are hundreds of illegal tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border - they are used to get goods past the blockade but also to smuggle in weapons and people.

The militants who launched Sunday's attacks are believed to have used the tunnels as an escape route.

Egypt's Mena news agency reports that the army has already begun sealing them off.

Build-up

The latest violence in the Sinai region began on Sunday, when militants carried out the deadliest and most brazen attack against Egyptian troops in the Sinai region for decades, killing 16 border guards.

There were further attacks on checkpoints in al-Arish on Wednesday, which left a number of people wounded.

Egypt launched its military offensive hours later, carrying out missile strikes from helicopters.

According to military officials, 20 people were killed in the village of Touma, while the Sheikh Zuwaid area to the west was also hit.

The BBC's Yolande Knell, in al-Arish, said further armoured personnel carriers could be seen overnight on Thursday, heading eastwards towards the border region.

Egypt's military presence in Sinai is limited and requires Israeli approval under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty which returned Sinai to Egyptian control.

Analysts say that the security situation in the area has deteriorated following the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year, and that Islamist extremists appear to have gained a foothold.

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