After warning, hundreds of Israelis flee Sinai

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JERUSALEM: Hundreds of Israeli travelers returned home after Israel warned its citizens to urgently leave Egypt s Sinai Peninsula because of a kidnapping alert, police said Wednesday.

In the unusually strong wording late Tuesday, Israel s anti-terror office called on all Israelis in Sinai to leave immediately and return home, and cited concrete evidence of an expected terrorist attempt to kidnap Israelis in Sinai. The director of the office suggested that fighters in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip were involved in the alleged kidnap plot.

The peninsula, within driving distance of Israel, was once an extremely popular vacation destination for Israelis because of its inexpensive seaside resorts, nestled at the foot of desert mountains.

A string of deadly suicide bombings in 2004 at several vacation spots popular with Israelis – including the Taba Hilton Hotel just across the Israeli border – has led many Israelis to shun the Sinai, though the area still remains relatively popular.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said about 650 Israelis were in Sinai when the warning was issued Tuesday – about half the number the counterterrorism office initially presented. By midmorning Wednesday, some 430 had left, Rosenfeld said.

The commander of the anti-terror office, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel, said Tuesday that it is very possible that at this moment, there is a terror cell that has the intention and has a plan in operation to kidnap an Israeli and bring him to Gaza.

Palestinian fighters in Gaza have been holding an Israeli soldier captive for more than three years.

Israeli military radio reported that the warning was issued following an unconfirmed rumor about the kidnapping of an Israeli.

Israel already issued a general warning to its citizens in February about the dangers of travel over the next few months to the Red Sea resort area which is a major draw.

But despite the travel advice, some 20,000 Israeli tourists still holidayed in the Sinai over the Jewish Passover holiday in late March and early April.

The anti-terrorism unit cited threats from Hezbollah and Iran.

A senior Egyptian security official contacted by AFP said the interior ministry was looking into the Israeli travel warning.

But other officials played it down, saying that it was based on rumors and that there was no credible intelligence suggesting tourists were under threat.

In addition to the 2004 suicide bombings, which killed dozens, bombers have also struck the Sinai resort towns of Sharm El-Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006, killing dozens more. Disgruntled Bedouin influenced by extremist groups were implicated in the Sharm and Dahab attacks. -Agencies

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