CAIRO -- Seven soldiers kidnapped last week by suspected Islamist militants in the restive Sinai were freed after a six-hour negotiation between local tribesmen and the kidnappers, the Egyptian government announcement Wednesday.
The soldiers, who’d been held since Thursday, were taken to an air force base in Cairo, where they were greeted by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who kissed each on both cheeks and used the release to call for more efforts to secure the Sinai.
Often neglected by Egyptian authorities since the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Sinai has increasingly been marked by instability and lawlessness.
Morsi, who frequently calls for reconciliation with liberal opponents, used the soldiers’ release to reach out to the Sinai’s tribesmen and rogue militants.
"I extend my hand to all of those who want good for this country – and I believe everyone does – in order for us to genuinely be the owners of the January 25 revolution. Let us be one body even if we have to step on thorns,” Morsi said.
The kidnapping gave Morsi, who’s been sharply criticized for his inability to solve the country’s economic problems, an opportunity to appear presidential as he met with the military and gave orders to beef up the military presence in the Sinai. Egyptian helicopters reportedly buzzed, and perhaps bombed, suspected militant encampments.
Precisely how the kidnapping was resolved was unclear, however. Local tribesmen and the kidnappers held a six-hour negotiation session that began at midnight Wednesday. The kidnappers reportedly asked for the government to consider releasing suspected militants from Sinai held in government prisons and for the Egyptian army to stop flying helicopters overhead in response to the kidnapping.
What the government agreed to was not known, but by midmorning the tribesmen gave the military the location of the kidnapped troops, who were picked up in the desert and flown to Cairo, where Morsi greeted them about 11 a.m.
The use of Egyptian helicopters to intimidate the kidnappers was rare in the Sinai. The 1979 Camp David Accords, which set the conditions for an Israeli withdrawal from the area, require Egypt to obtain permission from Israel before deploying forces to the Sinai. Israeli newspapers reported that the Egyptian actions had been coordinated with Israel.
The soldiers were snatched while traveling by minibus to the city of al Arish. They appeared blindfolded in a two-minute video Saturday in which they pleaded for Morsi’s help and implied they’d been tortured, though they appeared in good health.
The latest kidnapping marked the second time in his 11-month presidency that Morsi sent tanks and troops to restore order in Sinai. In August, he sent forces in after 16 Egyptian troops were killed after being snatched by militants.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail in Cairo contributed to this report.