EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — The deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command paid a visit Monday to American troops stationed in Egypt's troubled Sinai Peninsula, which has been plagued by lawlessness and a series of militant attacks on local troops and cross-border strikes into Israel.
A U.S. official said the trip by Vice Adm. Robert Harward to U.S troops who are stationed in Sinai as part of the 12-nation Multinational Force and Observers mission was a "routine" visit to an area crucial to security in the region. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to brief the media.
Egyptian security officials said Harward met with the U.S. forces as well as a senior Egyptian official in charge of the MFO file. No details of the meetings were immediately available. The American contingent is the largest of the 1,650-strong MFO mission in Sinai, which is part of the peace treaty signed by Egypt and Israel in 1979.
The accord is the bedrock of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and although it established a cool peace between Israel and Egypt, many in Israel were concerned that with the rise of Islamists to power in Cairo, coupled with rise of militancy in Sinai, the treaty might be in danger.
An Egyptian military spokesman said on his Facebook page that Harward's visit was not related to the security situation in Sinai, a vast mountainous and desert area that borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Tensions are running particularly high in northern Sinai, which has seen security evaporate since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last year. Militant attacks on police checkpoints have become a regular occurrence, and extremists also have staged strikes across the frontier into Israel.
In the most recent violence in Sinai, suspected Islamist militants on Saturday ambushed a police patrol, killing three policemen. The militants raised black flags associated with jihadi groups and chanted "God is great" before speeding off, local security officials said.
The killings triggered an unprecedented protest from policemen in the area, who expressed their increasing frustration with the violence, the near daily low-level attacks and what they perceive as the government's inadequate response to combat the threat.
Over the weekend, hundreds of low-ranking policemen held a protest outside the municipal government building, refusing to work and blocking traffic to the city center to press their demands for reinforcements, better weapons and a firmer crackdown on militants.
The military— largely responsible for guarding the border with Israel— has also been sucked into the mix. It launched an operation in Sinai in August after a militant ambush on an army outpost killed 16 soldiers, in the deadliest attack on Egyptian troops in peace time. The military campaign has yielded few tangible results, although military officials defend the operation and say it is still underway.
Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, promised after winning June elections to restore security to the lawless peninsula and hunt down those behind the attack on the military outpost. So far, no one has been charged in the ambush.
Rattled by the rare police protest, Egypt's defense and interior ministers visited the peninsula in an attempt to defuse some of the anger.
At the same time, Interior Minister Gen. Ahmed Gamal Eddin, fired the security chief of Northern Sinai after holding a tense meeting with the low-ranking policemen. The security chief was replaced by his longtime deputy.
Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, meanwhile, visited troops stationed in Sinai. The daily al-Masry al-Youm reported Monday that powerful local tribesmen held an angry protest because the two ministers failed to show up to a planned meeting with them, calling the failure to attend a deliberate snub.
The governor of northern Sinai, who had arranged the meeting, told a private TV station el-Sissi was called back to Cairo unexpectedly. Maj. Gen. Sayed Abdel-Fattah Harhour, the governor, also said he expected new weapons to arrive for the police force and a more intense crackdown on wanted militants.