Middle East

Armed clashes erupt in north, south Egypt

CAIRO: A gang of robbers attacked villagers in southern Egypt after being surprised by police while trying to steal railroad tracks for scrap metal, officials and witnesses said Tuesday.

It was just one of a number of incidents illustrating the breakdown of law and order in Egypt in the aftermath of the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak a year ago.

Residents of Sanaa in the Kharga oasis 520 kilometers (320 miles) south of Cairo said the robbers exchanged fire with police and took villagers as hostages. One resident was killed during the fighting.

The gang then holed up on a mountaintop and threatened to attack the village again if police were sent in, security officials said. The governor of Wadi Gadid, Gen. Tarek el-Mahdi, fired at the gang, which responded by shooting at his convoy. He escaped unharmed.

In another incident, a family vendetta left five dead in northern Cairo Tuesday. Others were wounded and dozens of buildings and warehouses were set on fire, according to security officials.

While such violence is on the upswing all over Egypt, the Sinai desert has become especially lawless, with kidnappings, robberies and attacks on Egypt's gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan becoming routine.

On Tuesday in northern Sinai, 300 Bedouins armed with automatic rifles mounted on pickup trucks surrounded a camp of the international peace force. The context appeared to be the upcoming retrial of five Bedouins sentenced to death or life in prison after being convicted of terrorism in 2005 bombing attacks in Sharm el-Sheik in southern Sinai.

With their show of force, the Bedouins apparently were trying to press for the prisoners to be freed.

The force, set up under the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979, stepped up security after the incident, said a force official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

The breakdown in law enforcement dates back to the uprising, when widely hated police were chased from the streets. They have hesitated to return in full force, and a crime wave in relatively peaceful Egypt has resulted.

The security vacuum has also enabled increased weapons smuggling into Egypt across the Libyan border. The surge came after the end of Libya's 2011 civil war, when large amounts of arms suddenly became available.

The wave of violence led to stiff criticism of the government on the floor of the Egyptian parliament Tuesday.

In a heated session, Egyptian lawmakers accused Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim of incompetence. His ministry is in charge of the police.

He responded that 4,000 inmates, including hardcore criminals, remain at large after a series of jailbreaks during the uprising last year, blaming them for much of the crime.

Ibrahim said that another element of the lawlessness comes from youth who have no criminal background but suffer from unemployment and poverty.

Some Egyptian activists claim the ruling military council has been intentionally slowing down the process of calming the streets as a way of showing that the military is essential in keeping order. The generals have pledged to turn over power to a civilian administration after a new president is elected in May.





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