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Israeli, Norwegian Tourists Kidnapped in Egyptian Sinai

The kidnapping of an Israeli man and Norwegian woman in Egypt's Sinai peninsula occurs as the Egyptian government has undertaken a "highly secretive operation" to secure the region, writes Mohamed Fadel Fahmy from Cairo.
An Israeli soldier stands near the border fence between Israel and Egypt as African would-be immigrants sit on the other side near the Israeli village of Be'er Milcha September 6, 2012. Israel ruled out entry on Wednesday for 20 Africans, whom Israeli media said were from Eritrea and included at least one woman and child, who have camped on its desert border with Egypt for almost a week, part of a crackdown on migrants who walk across the porous frontier. The fence along the 260 km (160 mile)-long frontier

CAIRO — Masked Bedouin gunmen in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula kidnapped two tourists, an Israeli man and a Norwegian woman, while they were traveling between Taba, near the Israeli border, and Dahab, a sea resort further south, late Thursday night [March 21], an Egyptian security official said.

"The driver was freed and rushed to Dahab police station and reported the kidnapping," said Gen. Ahmed Fawzy of the South Sinai police directorate.

"Bedouin gunmen driving a pickup truck intercepted their car and kidnapped them at gunpoint. Passports of the hostages and a mobile phone were left behind," Fawzy said.

National security and police are in contact with the kidnappers to attempt to secure the release of the hostages, Fawzy said.

The kidnappers have demanded the release of two Bedouin prisoners detained in Cairo on drug charges.

The Israeli hostage, identified as Amir Hassan, has been allowed to call his family in Israel, and the pair are unharmed, according to Salem Aneizan, a Bedouin leader from the Tarabeen tribe, who was contacted by the kidnappers and is acting as a negotiator to assist in the release of the hostages.

It is the first time an Israeli citizen has been abducted in the Sinai.

The Norwegian Embassy in Cairo refused to comment on or give further details about the 32-year old female hostage, Sylvia Asik.

Aneizan said, "The kidnappers are bad apples from our Tarabeen tribe, and they have moved the hostages to Al Maghara area in North Sinai. We are assisting the police to resolve the situation." 

He identified the first name of a kidnapper as "Suleiman," a resident of Al Maghara town in northern Sinai.

Members of the Tarabeen tribe, the second-largest in Sinai, have been implicated in criminal cases in the past involving drugs, weapons and the human trafficking of sub-Saharan Africans who are smuggled into Israel for cash. They are known for torturing African hostages and demanding large ransoms from their families abroad; ransom demands have reached up to $50,000.

At least 14 cases of foreigners who were kidnapped in Sinai have taken place since 2011, and all the hostages were released unharmed. Bedouin kidnappers have demanded, in return, the release of their relatives and friends from prison, but none of these demands have been met.

Earlier this month, Bedouin kidnappers briefly detained a UK manager of US oil company ExxonMobil and his wife, when they stopped at a currency exchange on their way to Sharm el-Sheikh. They were released unharmed six hours later.

Dozens of armed Islamist extremists terrorized the streets of North Sinai in pickup trucks and motorbikes March 22, waving the black flag affiliated with Islamic Jihad in a show of power.

"Many of the Islamists were dressed in black attire as they attacked drug dealers and kiosks that sell cigarettes in what they called 'cleansing of the city.' The army showed restraint to avoid bloodshed in what was an apparent flexing of muscles by the extremists," said Hamdy Al Azzazy, an eyewitness and president of a local NGO that fights human trafficking in Sinai. 

Two female US tourists were kidnapped in February of last year. Two other American tourists were abducted by Bedouin kidnappers in May, and two in July of last year. In all cases, they were released unharmed. 

The security situation in Sinai has deteriorated to an unprecedented level since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned during her visit to Egypt last July that the desert border between Israel and Egypt could become an "operational base" for jihadists if security is not improved.

Israel has expressed concerns about the region and is currently building a new fence on the border to prevent infiltration of its land. 

In an interview with CNN during her trip, Clinton said the problem was discussed at length during her meetings in Egypt and Israel.

There is "the potential of jihadists and terrorists taking up an operational base in Sinai," Clinton said in the interview. "We think this is a dangerous situation for both Egypt and Israel. It is also dangerous for Americans. We have Americans who are part of the multinational force that observes the continuation of the monitoring (of the) Camp David Accords."

The Egyptian government has recently announced that a "highly secretive operation" is under way to secure the region, and they have destroyed hundreds of underground tunnels that have been used by Bedouin for decades to smuggle weapons, contraband, and humans in and out of Gaza. 

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy is an Egyptian/Canadian freelance journalist and author of Baghdad Bound and Egyptian Freedom Story. Follow him on Twitter @Repent11.

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