CAIRO — Dozens of Egyptian troops and armored vehicles moved into Sinai Monday as the government beefed up security in the volatile peninsula after the abduction of six policemen and a border guard by suspected Islamic militants.
The security deployment comes a day after the release of a video of the captives, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, pleading for President Mohammed Morsi and his defense minister to free them by granting the demands of the men who seized them last week.
Sinai has been a major challenge for Morsi since shortly after he took office in June 2012. Later that summer, militants carried out the most brazen attack against border troops along the frontier with the Gaza Strip and Israel, leaving 16 Egyptian soldiers dead. The new leader vowed then to restore stability to the area. A brief military operation at the time resulted in the closures of some smuggling tunnels, and the arrest of the man believed to be at the heart of the current kidnapping, Ahmed Abu Shita.
Last Thursday's abduction came after Abu Shita's mother said her son had been badly tortured in detention, almost losing his eyesight.
Security officials believe Abu Shita's colleagues, members of an extremist group convicted in a major attack on a police station in North Sinai last year, are behind the attack. Abu Shita and 13 others were sentenced to death; including eight in absentia.
The captors have demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners from Sinai, including some who have been held since before the 2011 ouster of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, according to Mohammed Abu Samra, an Islamist familiar with the negotiations.
Morsi has been consulting with his security team, government officials, political and religious leaders on how to resolve the hostage crisis, which has highlighted the increasingly complex security situation in Sinai. Bedouins have long complained of discrimination, heavy-handed security crackdowns during the previous regime and unfulfilled promises to redress such detentions, leading to a spate of kidnappings of foreign tourists who for the most part were quickly released.
The increasing lawlessness in the peninsula also has attracted extremist groups, including supporters of Morsi's Islamist government, complicating the efforts to free the captive troops.
Morsi has said all options are open to free the seven men. He also rejected dialogue with "criminals," but officials have said security officials through mediators and local tribesmen have been in touch with the captors. They say they do not know if the deployment is a prelude to a rescue attempt.
"Every move must be well calculated before it is carried out ... The aim is that those (kidnapped) are released and safely," presidential spokesman Omar Amer told reporters.
Amer said help from Sinai tribesmen and families are welcomed, but he denied the presidency itself had sent any mediators.
"The current circumstances call for intensified security presence," Amer said of the deployment. "All alternatives are open, military operations or not. We are studying all alternatives."
A senior security official in Cairo said there were no orders to start a rescue operation.
The crisis has drawn new attention to the growing lawlessness in Sinai, particularly the northern part that borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. Criminal gangs, militants and local tribesmen angry over what they say is state discrimination and heavy-handed security crackdowns have exploited the security vacuum brought by Egypt's 2011 uprising. Armed groups smuggle weapons, attack security forces and kidnap tourists to trade for relatives held in Egyptian jails.
Security officials have promised families of those put on hasty trials or held without trial to address their complaints. Meanwhile, criminal gangs have secured the release of relatives after briefly holding tourists.
But two Islamists warned that any resolution of the Sinai crisis can't ignore local grievances such as detainee abuses or unfair trials that fail to meet international standards.
Abu Samra, a member of the Islamic Party, said a security operation would complicate matters and put the military in direct confrontation with local tribes and criminals. He said security officials and local groups are in touch with the captors.
"There is nothing wrong with negotiations. It is not a shame," Abu Samra, whose party is the political arm of Islamic Jihad, which itself fought the government in the 1990s. Even though he insisted those behind the abductions are not Islamists, he said they have tapped into their demands to gain sympathy. "Islamists want their sons to be retried," he said, adding that officials have promised that before.
Younes Makhyoun, a leading member of the ultraconservative Salafi party al-Nour, said some of those tried under Mubarak deserve retrials, and fugitives should be able to hand themselves for a fair trial.
"I think the government can make some concessions. Many of those locked up have been treated unjustly and humiliated by security," said Makhyoum, who met with Morsi on Sunday. "We can open a new page with them."
Associated Press writer Ashraf Sweilam contributed to this report from Sharm el-Sheikh.