CAIRO: Armed Bedouins have entered a military base used by international peacekeepers in Egypt’s Sinai region to pressure local authorities to release fellow tribesmen from jail, security and tribal sources said on Thursday.
Sinai Bedouin complain of unfair treatment and government neglect and press their demands by blocking roads and occasionally taking tourists hostage, releasing them soon afterwards following negotiations with the authorities.
Such incidents have become more frequent since the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year loosened the grip of state security and deepened lawlessness in the isolated Sinai.
Wednesday’s entry of the camp was the first time Bedouin have blocked off a base used by the multinational force that oversees observance of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel by patrolling their heavily guarded Sinai frontier.
The protest began a week ago as the Bedouin cut roads to the base with burning tires and escalated when they cut through a perimeter fence and dozens entered the camp.
“They are ready to storm the buildings at any time,” said a fellow Bedouin in contact with the men staging the protest.
A security official said the Bedouin had the camp surrounded on four sides to prevent any vehicles or staff at the base from entering or leaving.
No confrontation was reported for now but the security official and a Bedouin source, who both spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Bedouin have threatened to escalate the situation if their demands were not met.
The Multinational Force and Observers director in Cairo, Kathleen Riley, refused to confirm the incident, saying the force “does not comment about its operations”.
The force includes military staff from 12 countries including the United States, Colombia, France and Uruguay, the MFO website said.
Other Bedouin cut a main road in Sinai that leads to a commercial crossing between Egypt and Israel this week.
Uruguay said Wednesday a contingent of its soldiers serving as peacekeepers in the Sinai have been trapped in their base by Bedouins.
Foreign Minister Luis Almagro said about 35 Uruguayan soldiers in the multinational peacekeeping force had been blocked from leaving their base in the northern Sinai, which also has US and Colombian peacekeeping troops.
“The actual situation is that a Uruguayan contingent in the northern Sinai is … surrounded by Bedouins linked to some insurgent movements in the region,” he said.
Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro said “negotiations are underway” with the Bedouins to end the standoff.
No weapons have been fired during the confrontation.
The international peacekeeping force maintains a vigil in the Sinai under authority of the 1978 Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel.
Uruguay has been part of the mission since 1982. Its soldiers are assigned to two bases, according to Uruguayan army officials.
Pedro Aguerre, commander-in-chief of the Uruguayan Army, said the soldiers “have not been attacked but have been blocked.”
The peacekeepers, “all are well, with food, ammunition, good morale,” said Aguerre, the Uruguayan armed forces chief. He said the soldiers are highly trained and are prepared to use contingency plans if the situation worsens.
Other Uruguayans already have been evacuated to the southern Sinai, leaving only 35 at the northern base, he said.
The Bedouins have no “military structure as we know it, they are really nomads,” he added.
The northern Sinai base includes about 300 Colombian soldiers and 80 Americans.
The forces were in a state of alert and had increased their security, an official with the peacekeeping force said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to brief reporters.
An Uruguayan statement said the Bedouins also burned tires and stationed their guns around the four corners of the camp.
At least two days of negotiations have apparently failed to resolve the standoff. Both sides are waiting for Egypt’s response.
“The important thing is to see how Egypt resolves the negotiation with the Bedouins,” said Uruguay’s foreign minister, Luis Almagro. He said he had been in contact with the embassies of Egypt, the United States and Israel seeking more information.