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Human Rights Watch says civilians harmed as Egypt military creates northern Sinai buffer zone


CAIRO — The Egyptian military's campaign against Islamic insurgents in northern Sinai is harming thousands of civilians and risks turning more people against the government, Human Rights Watch said in a report Tuesday.

The government has evicted 3,200 families over the past two years, and razed hundreds of hectares (acres) of farmland and thousands of homes in its bid to destroy illegal smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip with Egypt's northern Sinai Peninsula, the rights group said.

"Destroying homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods is a textbook example of how to lose a counterinsurgency campaign," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization's director in the Middle East and North Africa.

"The Egyptian authorities provided residents with little or no warning of the evictions, no temporary housing, mostly inadequate compensation for their destroyed homes — none at all for their farmland," the organization said in a statement.

Egypt's government wants to create a buffer zone along its border with the Gaza Strip to destroy a cross-border network of tunnels. The government accuses Islamic militants of using smuggling tunnels to move between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza, which is ruled by the militant group Hamas.

The remote territory is characterized by hardscrabble towns, desert and mountainous areas suitable for guerrilla operations. Some disaffected local Bedouin tribesmen in the region, which suffers from economic hardship, turn to smuggling, organized crime and, in some cases, radical Islam.

The Egyptian government has been battling a long-running insurgency in the region, which escalated after the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 amid massive protests against his rule and cracked down on Islamic groups. A local Islamic State affiliate has been claiming responsibility for militant attacks in northern Sinai. While violence has largely been confined to the region, bombs have also hit other parts of the country, including Cairo.

Human Rights Watch said the United States had trained the Egyptian military to use "sophisticated tunnel-detecting technology" to find and destroy tunnels and avoid wiping out entire neighborhoods.

The organization also said it received video footage showing American-made M60 tank shelling a building to demolish it. It called on the United States to access the area and make sure its weapons aren't being used in violation of human rights.

As Egypt fights insurgents in northern Sinai, "It should do so in a way that does not arbitrarily harm civilians and violate their right to housing and their protections during forced evictions," the organization said.

Northern Sinai has been largely closed off to media, and it is difficult to independently verify reports from the area.

Egypt's military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir declined to comment on the Human Rights Watch report, referring questions to the government spokesman. Government spokesman Hossam Qawish, foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid and presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef didn't answer calls to their mobile phones seeking comment.

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