NEW: The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza has reopened, state media say
The seven soldiers were kidnapped last Thursday in the Sinai Peninsula
They are now free and heading back to the capital, Cairo, a military spokesman says
Military intelligence services and Sinai residents cooperated to secure their release, he says
Seven Egyptian soldiers who were kidnapped six days ago in the Sinai Peninsula have been freed, the spokesman for Egypt’s armed forces said Wednesday.
The men are now en route to the capital, Cairo, Ahmed Mohammed Ali said on his official Facebook page.
Their release is a result of “the efforts made by the Egyptian military intelligence services with the cooperation of the tribal sheikhs and the noble people of Sinai,” he said.
After the news, Egyptian authorities reopened the Rafah border crossing into Gaza in both directions, Egypt’s state-run news agency Egy News reported.
The crossing was closed for five days by Egyptian security forces to protest the kidnapping of their fellow soldiers, the official Jordanian news agency Petra said.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya congratulated Egypt on the release of the soldiers, calling it a “major achievement by the Egyptian military and a reassurance of the Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai,” Egy News reported.
Gaza has been controlled by Hamas, a militant Islamic group that does not recognize Israel, since 2006. Some in the Egyptian armed forces reportedly suspect it of supporting radical Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula.
Hamas on Sunday rejected allegations that it played a role in the kidnapping of the soldiers. “The only beneficiary of the problematic developments at the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip is the Zionist occupation,” said Hamas spokesman Salah Bardawil, according to the Hamas website.
It’s not yet clear who kidnapped the seven soldiers or how their release was secured.
Radical Islamist militant activity has been on the rise in the Sinai.
The official Egypt State Information Service reported Tuesday that a military operation was planned to secure the soldiers’ release but it cited presidential spokesman Omar Amer as saying only that all options were open.
Amer said Monday that Egypt would deal “decisively” with the kidnapping situation, the news agency reported.
The government wanted to ensure the safe release of the soldiers and was determined that the same scenario should not occur again, Amer was quoted as saying.
The Egyptian army sent dozens of armored vehicles and personnel carriers across the Suez Canal into North Sinai early Monday, the news agency said.