Scores of Egyptian police, according to security sources, angered by the kidnapping of seven of their colleagues by Islamist gunmen in the Sinai Peninsula, blocked a commercial border crossing with Israel on Sunday to pressure the Cairo government to help free the men.
According to local official Ahmed Osman, the policemen closed the main gates of the Awja crossing with chains, leaving around 40 trucks stranded.
The border crossing is 40 km (25 miles) south of Rafah, and it is often used by trucks that carry goods between Egypt and Israel, according to two security sources.
“Truck traffic has totally stopped,” one said.
A spokesman for the Israel Airports Authority, which also controls Israel’s land crossings, confirmed that traffic had stopped in both directions because of the police action at al-Awja. The border crossing is known in Israel as the Nitzana crossing.
More than 2,000 Palestinians were stranded on Sunday on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza.
The Palestinians included people who were returning from medical treatment abroad. They were transferred to a youth center, local officials stated.
On Sunday, a video posted on YouTube showed seven blindfolded men. They said they were the hostages, and they were shown begging President Mohamed Mursi to free political detainees in Sinai in exchange for their own release.
YouTube took the video down later, saying it violated its policy on violence.
The seven men urged the government to secure their release by meeting their captors’ demands.
In the video released Sunday, the men, blindfolded and holding their hands on their heads, introduce themselves one by one.
One of the men identified himself as Cpl. Ibrahim Sobhi Ibrahim. He pleaded for Egypt’s leaders to free jailed Sinai militants.
“The demands of the brothers, Mr. President, is the release of political prisoners from Sinai,” he says. “Please, Mr. President, release them quickly. We can no longer tolerate torture.”
At the close of the video, the men say: “Rescue us, Mr. President. We can’t take it. Rescue us, people.” The tip of a rifle appears at one point over the head of some of the captives, before it is swiftly pulled back off the screen. No visible signs of torture can be discerned on the young men.
Egyptian security officials said they believed the men in the clip were the missing personnel. They stated that authorities were treating the matter seriously.
One of the captives in the video was identified by his father, who said he would rather see his son dead than have his release negotiated.
On Thursday, the policemen were seized by gunmen who demanded the release of jailed Islamist militants who had seized and taken hostage the policemen and soldiers on the road between the Sinai towns of el-Arish and Rafah.
Since Friday, police have been blocking another border post, the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip. They did this in an effort to influence Mursi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, into helping free the seven kidnapped policemen.
Egyptian state authorities have been in contact with the kidnappers through mediators. They have demanded the release of several militants held in Egyptian jails, including some convicted during Mubarak’s rule, according to officials.
Mursi said “all options are open” to free the hostages, although he also wrote on Twitter: “We will not succumb to any blackmail.”
Also, the State Information Service said in a statement in English on Sunday that the army shifted several units of troops to North Sinai “in preparation for taking part in a large-scale military operation to release the abducted soldiers if negotiations came to failure.”
While many would like to see a swift security response President Mohammed Morsi’s government, some argued that such a move would spark a backlash.
Ever since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, Sinai has been wracked by lawlessness. Disgruntled with what they say is state-sponsored discrimination, criminal gangs, militants and local tribesmen have exploited the security vacuum to smuggle weapons, attack security forces and kidnap tourists to trade for relatives held in Egyptian jails.
According to presidential spokesman Omar Amer on Egyptian state television, no talks were taking place with the kidnappers and it would be unacceptable to negotiate with criminals.
Written by: Douglas Cobb