Six Egyptian policemen and a border guard abducted on the Sinai peninsula last week have been released, the Egyptian army has said in a statement.
“The seven kidnapped soldiers are now on their way to Cairo after they were released thanks to the work of military intelligence, and in cooperation with the noble tribal leaders of Sinai,” said army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali in a statement posted online on Wednesday.
A report on state television said the hostages were released by their captors in the desert south of Rafah, near the border with Israel.
President Mohamed Morsi gave the men a red-carpet welcome at a military air base in a Cairo suburb to where they were flown from Sinai.
Morsi, Egypt’s first civilian president, embraced and kissed each one of them as they disembarked from a military helicopter. Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were also on hand to receive the men.
Morsi later thanked the armed forces, security agencies as well as the people of Sinai and their tribal chiefs for their efforts to secure the release of the seven men.
He said efforts to free them provided an “example to follow of cooperation, planning, execution and of how the nation’s interests come first.” The president also vowed to hunt down the kidnappers, saying “there will be no going back on bringing the criminals to account.”
“This event will be a departure point for all of us to solve the problems of Sinai, its people and to develop Sinai,” he said.
Details of deal unclear
The men were abducted last week while traveling between the North Sinai towns of El-Arish and Rafah.
The army had deployed hundreds of soldiers to Sinai, along with dozens of armoured vehicles and helicopters, in the wake of the kidnapping. A military operation to free the hostages was widely expected in Egypt, but also risked triggering a backlash in Sinai.
The kidnappers were armed with anti-aircraft missiles and heavy machineguns, interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim said on Tuesday, adding that there were no negotiations with the kidnappers, who were demanding the release of jailed Bedouin militants.
It was not immediately clear if Wednesday’s release was a sign that the captors’ demands would be met.
A spokesman for the ruling Freedom and Justice Party said on Wednesday that the Rafah crossing with Gaza, which was closed shortly after the abductions, has been reopened.
Tension has been running high since the kidnapping, which was followed by two attacks on or near police camps in Sinai.
On Monday, assailants fired heavy weapons for 25 minutes at a police camp in Al-Ahrash, followed later in the day by another attack on the Oja border crossing with Israel, which is also close to a police camp.
Attacks on police and soldiers in the sparsely populated peninsula have surged since an uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, as have cross-border attacks on Israel.
In August 2012, gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near Israel’s border and commandeered an armoured vehicle into Israel, where they were stopped by a helicopter strike.