CAIRO (AP) — Six Egyptian policemen and a border guard kidnapped by suspected militants in the volatile Sinai Peninsula last week were freed by their captors Wednesday after successful mediation, the country's military spokesman said.
The release, which followed a security buildup and a massive show of force by the military in northern Sinai, brought an end to a crisis that had stirred anger with the public and within the security forces and held the potential to embarrass both the military and Islamist President Mohammed Morsi had it dragged on.
The captors freed the seven men early Wednesday in the middle of the desert, and some were able later to speak to their families by telephone, according to officials and state TV. Military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said on the army's official Facebook page that the release came about as a "result of efforts by military intelligence, in cooperation with the honorable tribal leaders and Sinai residents."
Morsi, however, trumpeted their crisis' end as the outcome of an "operation" that showcased "perfect" coordination between the armed forces, the police and security agencies. He also called for unity in a nation deeply divided, with the president and his Islamist backers in one camp and moderate Muslims, liberals, leftists and Christians in the other.
After their release, the men were flown in a military helicopter to an air force base in a Cairo suburb, where Morsi greeted them on the tarmac with a kiss on each cheek as they disembarked. Prime Minister Hesham Kandil and Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi were also on hand to receive the men.
Morsi later thanked the armed forces, security agencies as well as the people of Sinai and their tribal chiefs for their efforts to resolve the standoff. He also vowed to hunt down the kidnappers, saying "there will be no going back on bringing the criminals to account."
"This event will be a departure point for all of us to solve the problems of Sinai, its people and to develop Sinai," he said.
Over the past week, the kidnapping and the expectations of a massive military operation to free the hostages took center stage in Egyptian politics but also risked triggering a backlash in Sinai, where resentment among the local population against past security crackdowns has fueled the rise of militancy.
Calls for a tough response were fueled by a video released last week on YouTube showing the captives blindfolded and pleading for Morsi to meet the kidnappers' demands and release of scores of prisoners from Sinai, including convicted militants.
Faced with anger among the public and within the security forces over the kidnappings, Morsi had said that all options were on the table and that the presidency would not negotiate with the kidnappers. But several officials said mediators were in contact with the kidnappers to secure their release.
It was not immediately clear whether Wednesday's release was a sign that the captors' demands would be met or whether the release was the outcome of a deal forced on the captors by the military's show of force.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said Tuesday the kidnappers were demanding the release of 24 convicted militants, some imprisoned since 2005. He called the demands "unacceptable."
A senior security official told the state news agency that the release was a coordinated effort between security agencies. He said plans involved "closing in on the kidnappers, security sweeps, and intensive deployment." The unnamed official said security agencies as well as families and tribes in Sinai were in contact with the kidnappers.
The official did not elaborate, but in the past, tribal leaders in Sinai have been known to mediate between authorities and Bedouin tribesmen behind kidnappings of foreign tourists.
On Monday, military and police reinforcements backed by armored vehicles and helicopters moved into northern Sinai in a show of strength, deploying heavily around the provincial capital, el-Arish. A joint military and police force carried out a sweep backed by helicopter cover on Tuesday in several villages along the border with Israel.
A security official told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the men were believed to have been held in that area, and were let go by their captors there. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to brief the media.
It was not immediately clear whether the army and police will continue to hunt down the captors or whether a major security operation would be launched to rid the mostly desert peninsula of militants and criminal gangs.
During the sweep, troops and police mistakenly fired on a Bedouin funeral in Sinai on Tuesday. No one was injured, and a military official offered an apology, but the incident highlighted the risks of a heavy handed attempt to free the captives.
The kidnapping last Thursday also highlighted the growing instability in Sinai. Criminal gangs, militants and local tribesmen disgruntled with what they say is state discrimination and heavy-handed security crackdowns have exploited the security vacuum brought by Egypt's 2011 uprising. Armed groups smuggle weapons, attack security forces and kidnap tourists to trade for relatives held in Egyptian jails.
Liberal politician and former lawmaker Amr Hamzawy lauded the captives' release, calling it "successful crisis management."
"Now this success must be invested to deal comprehensively with the Sinai issues, which shook state sovereignty and national security, and where grievances have accumulated and development lacked," Hamzawy wrote on his Twitter account.
Morsi faced his first Sinai challenge in August last year, just over a month after taking office, when militants carried out the most brazen attack ever on military troops, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers along the border with Gaza and Israel.
At the time, Morsi vowed to restore stability, launching a brief military operation that resulted in the closures of some smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza and the arrest of the man believed to be at the heart of the current kidnapping, Ahmed Abu Shita.
Abu Shita was sentenced to death in absentia in September for involvement in a major attack on a northern Sinai police station in 2011 that left three policemen dead. Thirteen others, including seven others in absentia, were also given death sentences in the case.
Ibrahim said the kidnappers were too well-armed to be confronted by the police force alone. He said the kidnappers had planned the operation for two months in advance and were armed with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other heavy weaponry smuggled from Libya.
Disgruntled policemen in northern Sinai have protested their colleagues' kidnapping, closing the only passenger crossing between Gaza and Egypt in Rafah, and briefly forcing shut a commercial terminal with Israel.
Palestinian Gaza border official Maher Abu Sabha said the Rafah terminal will reopen Wednesday.
Associated Press Writers Ashraf Sweilam in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.