Sunday, November 16, 2008

AFP - Sinai Bedouin pledge 'hard response' unless police tried

SHEIKH ZWAID, Egypt (AFP) — Bedouin tribesmen in north Sinai pledged a "hard response" unless police officers are put on trial after three Bedouin were killed and their bodies left near a rubbish dump.

Police say the three were armed and had shot at police after refusing to stop at a checkpoint near the Israeli border on Tuesday.

However, police officials acknowledge the bodies were left half-buried near a dump, although they have not provided an explanation. A security official said none of the three was wanted for offences.

Abdullah el-Urjani, a brother of one of the dead men, said the Bedouin are not likely to forget this week's deaths.

"What do you think? We are united now, and behind each one of us there are thousands. What's there to be scared of now?" he told AFP.

Another brother, Bashir el-Urjani, agreed. "Last time we gave concessions. Not this time. If they don't try these officers (involved in the killings) there will be a response. A very hard response."

The deaths prompted angry Bedouin to occupy police stations and detain more than 70 policemen.

In one incident on Tuesday, the Bedouin besieged a police station in Wadi el-Aazariq and took hostage more than 40 policemen. After their release a day later, some policemen were taken to hospital suffering bruises, broken bones and shock, medical sources said.

The Bedouin walked away with 72 automatic rifles, 20,000 bullets, walkie-talkies and night vision goggles.

Bedouin also laid siege to another police station in Madfouna for hours, before overrunning it and detaining a commander and 10 policemen.

About two dozen officers sent as reinforcements were intercepted by three cars full of armed Bedouin, who drove the policemen off to a stretch of desert and abandoned them there.

Later in the day, police decided to abandon their posts, to come back on Wednesday with reinforcements.

--'The Arabs are shooting, so we'll shoot them'--

In Sheikh Zwaid, Bedouin from the Tarabin tribe, one the largest tribes in Sinai, with members in Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan, gathered under a tent on Friday to mourn their dead and offer condolences to the close relatives.

Abdullah and Bashir el-Urjani heard on Tuesday morning that their brother Ahmed, along with two relatives, had been shot and killed.

Tensions had been high since the evening before, when another Bedouin from the tribe was killed, also after allegedly refusing to stop at a checkpoint.

The death set off protests throughout the night, with demonstrators firing bullets into the air.

"Things were heated," said Bashir el-Urjani, "The police probably thought: the Arabs" -- the name used by Bedouin for themselves -- "are shooting, so we'll shoot them."

The relatives of the dead said they were peaceful and had never been arrested. Two of them, Urjani and Marwan el-Rifai, ran a tourist resort in Dahab and had attestations of good character from police to facilitate their travel in Sinai, their relatives said.

But what exploded the tensions was the manner in which the bodies of Ahmed el-Urjani and the two Bedouin who were killed on Tuesday were treated, Bedouin and police sources said.

Their relatives, with the help of Israeli soldiers pointing from their side of the border, found them near a rubbish dump a few hours after they died.

Video footage of the corpses, taken by relatives and seen by AFP, showed the bodies with gaping high-calibre bullet wounds to the chests and smaller bullet wounds to the heads.

"That was really hard, what they did to the bodies," said Bashir el-Urjani. "You kill someone, and then mutilate him. Why? That was the real problem."

--'They treat us like occupiers'-

"The police would only do this in Sinai," Urjani said. "They treat us like occupiers, as though we usurped their land. They have always treated the Arabs badly."

The Tarabin, and all the roughly 200,000 Bedouins who live in Sinai, have long complained of discrimination by the Egyptian government, which recovered Sinai from Israel in 1982.

Egyptian police, who have accused members of the tribe of involvement in the drug trade with Israel and human trafficking, clamped down after a spate of bombings against Sinai tourist resorts between 2004 and 2006, which killed dozens of foreign tourists and Egyptians.

Police blamed what they said was an Islamist terrorist group based in El-Arish, close to Sheikh Zwaid, and which they said was led by a member if Tarabin and Egyptian-born Palestinians.

Thousands of Bedouin were arrested, and dozens killed in arrest operations. The crackdown provoked condemnation from Egyptian and international human rights groups, who said arrests were carried out without warrants and that police tortured prisoners.

The arrests, and exile from Egypt of some Tarabin and Bedouin from other tribes, still cause resentment among the Tarabin who spoke to AFP.

They also complain of discrimination, arbitrary arrests and frequent harassment at checkpoints. In 2007, Bedouin rioted twice in the north, protesting the death of a tribesman and, after a clash between rival Bedouin tribes, alleged police inaction.

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