Egypt beefs up security after gas pipeline explosion
CAIRO // The Egyptian government was strengthening its security presence on the Sinai Peninsula yesterday after the alleged bombing on Sunday of a natural gas pipeline connecting Egypt with Jordan and Syria, local newspapers reported. Egyptian security officials could not immediately confirm that an explosion had taken place near the village of Al Gafan, about 6km south of the coastal city of Al Arish. But the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Yawm, quoting unnamed ministry sources, reported that the minister of petroleum, Sameh Fahmy, was visiting the site of the damage yesterday to oversee repairs.
Details of the attack remain unclear, but sources in Egypt's ministry of interior pointed to the northern Sinai's restive Bedouins as possible suspects, reported Maan, the Palestinian news agency. Bedouins may have orchestrated the bombing in retaliation for the government's increasingly harsh crackdown on local tribes, some of whom are suspected of involvement in drugs and weapons smuggling as well as recent attacks on security services.
If Sinai Bedouins did indeed plant explosives on the pipeline, Sunday's bombing could escalate a recent series of violent confrontations between the Egyptian government and the Bedouins, who have complained for decades about their perceived economic and political disenfranchisement from mainstream Egyptian society. Bedouins of the Sinai say police routinely target them as drug peddlers and smugglers, treating them as second-class citizens because of their unique culture and deeply private, isolated existence on the sparsely populated peninsula.
"I think this is an escalation. It's considered as an escalation because the Bedouin have some demands from the government, but the government refuses to deal with these demands in a way that would satisfy the Bedouins, so they try to escalate their struggle against the government through attacks on the pipelines," said Bashir Abdel Fattah, a political analyst at the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Mr Abdel Fattah was careful to note, however, that the perpetrators of the attack remain unknown and so may not, in fact, be local Bedouins.
The latest spate of violence began in April, when members of the Al Tarabeen clan attacked a guarded prison convoy in order to free Salam Abdul Lafi, who was jailed in 2008 for allegedly leading attacks against security forces on the peninsula. One police officer was killed and six were injured in the daring prison-break, prompting government authorities to raid the homes of several Bedouin families.
The conflict has escalated dramatically in the past week, with armed militants launching several attacks against security forces. On June 21, police searched for Lafi in local homes in the Al Omar Valley region. According to some witnesses, police used rocket propelled grenades to subdue residents. Bedouin tribesmen retaliated that day by attacking a Gaza-bound aid convoy parked at the Al Auja border crossing with Israel.
On Saturday, about 20 gunmen opened fire on policemen in the Central Sinai region. No deaths have been reported in any of the recent attacks. For their part, local Bedouin leaders said police tactics in the Sinai have been brutal. Law enforcement officials have raided homes and detained women as "hostages" to compel the fugitives to turn themselves in. Such behaviour contravenes an unspoken protocol between security services and the Sinai Bedouin, who tend to exercise justice within their own communities and sometimes hand over criminals at the request of police.
"They attacked our houses randomly with heavy machinery and they killed a lot of camels and sheep. They terrified the kids and the people living in the houses. They destroyed water tanks, despite that water in Sinai is rare," said Mousa Dalah, a leader of the Tarabeen Bedouin clan. Mr Dalah, who said he does not know who attacked the natural gas pipeline on Sunday, said he was wanted by police who suspect him of participating in the April attacks on the prison convoy. "We as Bedouins are deprived from the simplest means to live and they malign us with different accusations, like drug smuggling, without any solid proof."
Members of the Sinai Bedouin community say security officials are holding more than 1,000 young Bedouin men without charge. Murad Muwafi, the governor of the North Sinai governorate, has said that the prisoners will be released once Bedouin leaders turn in those fugitives who are wanted by the police. Such talk, which Bedouin leaders say amounts to hostage-taking and collective punishment, may lead to further violence. In the past 50 years, the Sinai Peninsula has been the site of several wars between Israel and Egypt. The Bedouin people, said Mr Dalah, have armed themselves with leftover weapons that are a vestige of the region's violent past.
"We would rather die before our honour is impugned," said Mr Dalah. "We expect anything and we are ready to respond. If they escalate the situation, we can respond to any attack. We call on humanitarian workers to come and see the violations that are going on in the Sinai." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: June 29, 2010 04:00 AM