CAIRO — Seven men purported to be the members of Egypt’s security forces kidnapped by suspected militants last week appeared in a video posted online Sunday and urged the government to secure their release by meeting their captors’ demands.
The video, posted on YouTube, is the first sign of the six policemen and one border guard since they were abducted by gunmen on the road from the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo on Thursday. Egyptian security officials said they believed the men in the clip were the missing personnel and that authorities were treating the matter seriously, while the father of one of the captives identified his son in the video.
The kidnappings have embarrassed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s government, and are seen as a test of his administration’s ability to restore security to the volatile peninsula. They also have renewed a national debate on how best to tackle the troubles in northern Sinai, which borders Gaza and Israel. While many called for a swift security response, some argued that such a move would spark a backlash.
Sinai has been wracked by lawlessness since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. Criminal gangs, militants and local tribesmen disgruntled with what they say is state-sponsored discrimination have exploited the security vacuum to smuggle weapons, attack security forces and kidnap tourists for use as bargaining chips to push for the release of relatives held in Egyptian jails.
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 and asked 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.”
The video closes with the men pleading to the camera: “Rescue us Mr. President. We can’t take it. Rescue us, people.” At one point, the tip of a rifle appears over the head of some of the captives, before it is swiftly pulled back out of the screen. There were no visible signs of torture on the young men.
Ibrahim also appeals to Morsi to consider that Israel negotiated for the release of one of its soldiers. He was referring to Gilad Shalit, who spent five years in captivity with Palestinian militants in Gaza. He was released in 2011 in a prisoner swap for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Egypt helped broker the deal.
“If we are dear to you, like Gilad Shalit was dear to Israel…We are seven Egyptian soldiers,” Ibrahim says.
It was not immediately clear who posted the video, which was uploaded to a YouTube account created Sunday.
An Egyptian security official identified the captives in the video as the missing personnel. He said a copy of the video was sent to security agencies, but it was not immediately clear by whom. Another security official in Cairo said families and friends of the captives were called in to identify their relatives.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The names of five of the missing also correspond with names previously obtained by The Associated Press.
Security officials say they believe the assailants carried out the kidnapping after being angered over reports that a prisoner, Ahmed Abu Sheta, had been tortured while in jail. Abu Shehata was convicted of attacking a police station in 2011 that killed police officers.
Authorities have been in contact with the kidnappers through mediators. The kidnappers have demanded the release of several militants held in Egyptian jails, including some convicted during Mubarak’s rule, officials say.
The kidnappings are seen as a test of the government’s ability to combat security threats in Sinai. A brazen attack on border guards last year left 16 soldiers killed, in the bloodiest against troops in modern history, and the culprits remain unidentified.
In a statement Sunday, the president said that there is “no room for dialogue with the criminals” responsible for the kidnappings. The statement followed a meeting Morsi held with politicians from largely Islamist groups to brief them on efforts to secure the captives’ release.
Morsi pledged on Thursday to secure the men’s release, and called for the protection of both the “abducted and the kidnappers.”
Following Sunday’s meeting, Younes Makhyoun, a leading member of the ultraconservative Islamist Salafi al-Nour party, said the president is keen to avoid a security response.
“Even though there are voices who are demanding security interference and decisiveness, (Morsi) said he is keen on saving the soldiers peacefully, and is keeping the engagement with local tribesmen,” Makhyoun told The Associated Press. “The security solution would be easiest, but he wants to preserve lives.”
Makhyoun said his party is also against a security solution because it would lead to bloodshed and won’t resolve the problem — a lingering feeling of injustice by many of those who were convicted and arrested during the Mubarak era. He said the kidnappers’ demands include the release of as many as 600 prisoners, some of whom were convicted before 2011. A way out, he said, would be to offer retrials for those convicted in the past or in haste.
Mohammed Abdel-Hamid, the father of one of the policemen, told the private Al-Youm TV station that his son was in the video. He said he would rather see his son dead than have his release negotiated.
Expressing their anger at the recent kidnapping, scores of policemen blocked a commercial border crossing with Israel Sunday to protest the abduction of their colleagues. The policemen closed the main gates of the Awja crossing with chains, leaving around 40 trucks stranded, according to local official Ahmed Osman.
On Friday, policemen blocked another border crossing into Gaza.