CAIRO — Dozens of disgruntled border policemen forced the closure of Egypt's main crossing point into the Gaza Strip on Friday to protest the abduction of their colleagues by suspected militants, underscoring the lawlessness and crisis of authority in the country two years since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
The police protest comes a day after masked gunmen ambushed two taxis at gunpoint outside the city of el-Arish, the capital of North Sinai governorate, fleeing with four border policemen working at the Rafah crossing, a riot policeman, and a military border guard. Officials have not identified a seventh captive.
The abduction is the first confirmed case in the peninsula.
In 2011, four policemen went missing and their vehicle was found torched on Feb. 4, 2011 in el-Arish city. In a recent TV interview aired on private TV network al-Balad, the wives of two of the missing men claim they were abducted by masked militants and smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels. They claimed that the country's Interior Minister himself confirmed they are alive and in Gaza.
However, security officials told The Associated Press that the abduction theory has lost support since authorities have failed to establish communication with the abductors, more than two years after their disappearance. A military official says authorities consider the four missing.
At Rafah terminal, one of the protesting policemen said his group plans to keep the crossing closed until their colleagues are freed.
"We are not leaving until those men return. We want Sinai to be secure. We need more police and army. Sinai is under control of the jihadis. The state is absent," he said over the phone from the crossing. "We are not safe here. The police are afraid. Since the revolution until this minute, nothing has changed or improved."
He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Authorities say the kidnappers were reacting to the alleged torture of a militant serving a life sentence in prison, and are in contact with mediators to obtain the captives' release.
It is not clear what the kidnappers want, but a security official says the police officer accused of torturing the militant has been summoned for questioning while the imprisoned militants were reportedly transferred to another prison. The police chief of North Sinai governorate, Gen. Sameh Beshadi, was quoted by daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on Friday as saying that the kidnappers want the release of militants imprisoned over a 2011 attack on a police station.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Ahmed Abu-Sheta, the militant who claims he was tortured until he lost his eyesight, was convicted along with others for involvement in the police station attack that left four dead. One of the kidnappers, identified by security authorities as Kamal Allam, was also sentenced to death in absentia in the same case.
The brother of Abu-Sheta denied that his family has any connection to the abduction in an interview with private-owned daily Al-Watan.
Lawlessness in the Sinai has increased after the breakdown of country's formerly powerful security forces.
Islamic militants have stepped up attacks on police stations and security convoys. Bedouin tribal gangs are involved in smuggling and other criminal activity. A flow of weapons from Libya's 2011 civil war has emboldened armed groups.
The killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in August last year at the hands of masked militants marked a turning point in the Sinai. The military conducted several anti-militant sweeps but no attackers have been publically identified.
Lawlessness in the Sinai is also linked to political discontent. Local tribes accuse the central government of discrimination, neglect, and police brutality.
Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi has presided over the military operations but has also signaled he prefers mediation. On Thursday, he called for the "protection of the lives" of both the "abducted and the kidnappers" and said that the solutions to Sinai's problems should not be through "abductions and terrorizing citizens."
AP writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza contributed to this story. Ashraf Sweilam contributed to this report from southern Sinai.