CAIRO — Suspected militants in Egypt's Sinai abducted seven security personnel as they headed to Cairo for holidays early Thursday, security officials said. It was the first such kidnapping of security forces in the lawless peninsula.
The officials said masked gunmen ambushed two taxis at gunpoint outside the city of el-Arish, the capital of North Sinai governorate, fleeing with five policemen and one border guard captive. None of those abducted were in uniform, officials said.
Four of the policemen work in the Rafah border terminal leading to the Gaza Strip, and one was in a riot police unit deployed in Sinai. The border guard was a member of the military. The taxi drivers reported that a seventh member of the security forces was also kidnapped, but authorities said they are still trying to identify him.
Security in the Sinai has deteriorated sharply in the two years since the overthrow of longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak, as it has elsewhere across the country. A surge in crime as well as clashes between Islamist backers of President Mohammed Morsi and his opponents have combined with economic woes to feed the sense of insecurity.
A new poll released by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Projects said only 30 percent of Egyptians polled see the country on the right track, compared to 53 percent surveyed in 2012, and 65 percent in 2011.
"Today's level of satisfaction is comparable to the level observed in spring 2010," almost a year before the uprising, the Center's report said.
In the poll, 44 percent of Egyptians surveyed say law and order in the country was getting worse. Conducted in March, the poll describes a divided nation, with 53 percent viewing Islamist President Mohammed Morsi favorably, and only 46 percent expressing confidence that upcoming elections would be fair.
Morsi's opponents are planning rallies Friday in which they demand that he step down and that early presidential elections be held.
The poll surveyed 1,000 Egyptians with a 4.3 percent margin of error.
The abduction in the Sinai is the latest incident to highlight the rise of Islamist militant groups there. Along with Bedouin tribal gangs involved in smuggling and other criminal activity, they have taken advantage of the security vacuum there to step up attacks on police stations, security convoys and other targets.
Security officials say Thursday's kidnapping was carried out by militant groups known to the authorities who are hiding in North Sinai's rugged mountains. Two officials said the kidnapping came after the mother of an imprisoned militant claimed that her son was tortured in detention, causing his eyesight to fail. The imprisoned militant is sentenced to death for attacking a police station in the early days after Mubarak's ouster.
The officials said authorities were sending the family to visit their son in prison again and provide him with necessary medical attention in a bid to defuse anger over his treatment, and secure the safety of the captive security personnel.
They said contact was established with the kidnappers, adding that representatives of the presidency and the military are reaching out to militants and mediators to secure the hostages' release. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the new instructions with the media.
Egypt's state news agency MENA reported that negotiations with the kidnappers were underway through mediators, but also didn't elaborate. It reported that Morsi held an emergency meeting with the defense and interior ministers to discuss the kidnapping. In a statement, his office said the presidency was closely following the developments in the case.
The security officials said forces in the Sinai were on high alert, particularly along the border with the Gaza Strip. Movement was restricted for the multinational forces stationed in Sinai since the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979, the officials added.
Egypt's military has carried out sweeps in the peninsula since a militant attack against its troops that left 16 soldiers killed in August 2012. It was the most brazen militant assault on Egyptian troops in modern history. Still, the attackers have not been apprehended or publicly identified.
The volatile northern Sinai borders Hamas-ruled Gaza as well as Israel. Weapons flowed into the peninsula from Libya to the area, adding to the security challenge.
Complicating the situation is a longtime resentment by local tribes toward the central government, which they accuse of discrimination, neglect, and police brutality. Tribal Bedouins have briefly kidnapped foreigners to use them as bargaining chips with authorities, urging them to release imprisoned relatives. Drugs, immigrants and arms are smuggled through the mountainous terrain.
Morsi had pledged to restore security to the peninsula. Officials from the presidency at one point negotiated with locals to ease off on the crackdown and the pursuit of fugitives. In exchange, locals were to refrain from attacks on authorities or cross-border raids on Israel.
The U.S. has repeatedly discussed the situation in Sinai with Egyptian authorities and offered security and border control advice.
Associated Press Writer Ashraf Sweilam contributed to this report from southern Sinai.