Egypt boosts forces on Israeli border

Official says move meant to stop infiltration into Israel; paper: Hizbullah planned 3 attacks in Sinai.

Sinai huts 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  (file))
Sinai huts 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski (file))
Egypt is reinforcing security on its border with Israel to prevent infiltration into Israel, after arresting an alleged Hizbullah cell planning attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian security sources told Reuters Tuesday. "The number of Egyptian security patrols has been increased along the borders with Israel and police checkpoints near the border have been reinforced with additional police," an unnamed official said. The 49-member cell allegedly planned to carry out three simultaneous terror attacks on Israeli tourists in the Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian paper Al Ahram reported Tuesday. According to the report, which was based on the interrogation of terror suspect Sami Shihab, Hizbullah was not planning to transfer weapons to Hamas in the Gaza Strip via Sinai, but rather to use them to carry out attacks within Egypt. The newspaper reported earlier in the week that terror cell members had acquired a house in Cairo and numerous villas in Sinai as part of the plot to perpetrate terror attacks in the area. On Monday, Egyptian police continued hunting for at least 10 members of the alleged Hizbullah cell in a mountainous Sinai region, as officials tried to assuage fears over the safety of tens of thousands of Israeli and other tourists in the peninsula. Contrary to Egypt's allegations, Hizbullah deputy leader Naim Kassem was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying that the group does not conduct operations outside of Lebanon. An Egyptian security official said police were searching for 13 men, thought to be 10 Lebanese and three Sudanese - part the alleged Hizbullah cell that the government announced was plotting to attack Egyptian institutions and Israeli tourists. Another official said he believed police were searching for 10 people in the area of al-Nakhl, a central Sinai town far from popular tourist destinations. The additional cell members were identified during the ongoing investigation of the 49 suspects, he said. "Any tourist on Egyptian land is our guest, and we will do our best to protect them - [this is] for everybody, of course, including Israelis," the second official told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "I can tell you that the security presence is everywhere, covert security people. We don't want to give [tourists] the feeling that... there are guns everywhere around them. People came to have a nice vacation, to enjoy the sea and the sun. It's an art, how to do it without annoying people." There were "cordons [of security] around all tourist sites in order for everything to be secure there. It is something of major importance for us," the official added. When asked whether it was believed that the suspects would try to carry out a terrorist attack in Sinai, he responded: "When terrorists are discovered, they try to hide, not show themselves." The Egyptian security services "have the capacity to find them," he said. Authorities fear the suspects might either try to escape north into Gaza - some 200 km. away - through the many secret tunnels under the border, or head south to the tourist resorts on the Sinai coast. There is little security presence in Sinai's vast, mountainous interior, where some Beduin make their living in the drug trade. Most residents of the impoverished peninsula do not benefit from the tourist resorts, such as Sharm e-Sheikh, along the southern coast. Meanwhile, Egyptian Attorney-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud added espionage to the charges against the 49 alleged Hizbullah agents, besides plotting to destabilize the country. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has rejected the accusations, but confirmed over the weekend that his organization had sent a member to Egypt - a rare acknowledgment that the Lebanese group was operating in another Arab country. Mahmoud told Egypt's state-run news agency MENA late Sunday that the alleged agents, including Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian and Sudanese nationals, had been spying for a foreign group intending to carry out terrorist attacks in Egypt. Shihab, the chief suspect, admitted to interrogators that his main objective had been to smuggle terrorists and weapons into the Gaza Strip, according to the London-based Arabic daily A-Sharq al-Awsat. Although Shihab was originally instructed to target Israeli tourists in Sinai to avenge the killing of Hizbullah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in February 2008, he was later ordered to abandon those plans and focus on smuggling fighters and explosives into the Gaza Strip and Israel. Hamas spokesman Muhammad Nazal praised Hizbullah's actions, but denied his group knew anything about the planned smuggling operation. He added that it was the duty of every Arab to back Hizbullah. Meanwhile, members of Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have reiterated their support for Hizbullah. "We see no contradiction between supporting the resistance and preserving the sovereignty of the state," Hussein Ibrahim, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc, told A-Sharq al-Awsat. "Our enemy and Hizbullah's enemy are the same." In addition, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, called for supporting the resistance "by all means" and decried reports of the Hizbullah ring as media incitement. "There are two agendas [in the region]... An agenda working to protect and support the resistance against the Zionist enemy, and an agenda that only cares about satisfying the Americans and the Zionists," he told the paper.