CAIRO (AP) — Telephone and internet networks were briefly shut down to Egypt's southern province of Aswan for several hours, as authorities moved to try to end a bloody tribal feud that killed 26 people over the past days, security officials and residents said Tuesday.
The officials said the shutdown was part of a plan aimed at preventing contacts while security forces prepare operations to disarm the two feuding sides, an Arab clan and a Nubian family.
Egypt's telecommunication company said the outage was caused when a cable linking the cities of Luxor and Edfu, to the north of Aswan, was damaged during construction work. The outage lasted only two hours and was fixed gradually, it said in a statement issued on the state news agency MENA.
Such communication outages have been repeatedly used in the Sinai Peninsula during security forces offensive against Islamic militants there, though the government never officially confirms them.
Tribal leaders engaged in mediation talks with government officials in Aswan have complained that contacts with the media and through Internet and mobile phones have fuelled the tension in the past days by spreading news about the carnage, the officials said.
The state news agency MENA said there was a blanket communications cut in Aswan for hours, disrupting banks, government offices, and offices issuing plane and train tickets.
The fighting in Aswan province, about 880 kilometers (550 miles), from the capital, erupted Friday. It reportedly began after a fight last week between school students drew in adults, sparking the clashes that turned deadly Friday. Police said the fight was over the harassment of a girl. Witnesses said offensive graffiti on the school walls taunting the Nubian family and the Arab clan with racial slurs fueled the violence.
The state news agency MENA said the toll from three days of fighting rose to 26 when one person died from extensive burns suffered earlier. Since Monday, fighting has eased under a truce mediated by officials.
One of the officials said the fighting, which began Friday, had become a "national security issue." The previous evening, the interim president met with the National Security Council, a body of top security officials, to come up with a plan to confront the violence.
One of the officials said severing communications aimed to give cover for troops during searches for weapons and suspects. The shutdown lasted about three hours, during which attempts to reach Aswan residents by phone were unsuccessful. By the afternoon, communications at least partially returned. But it was not clear what operations had been carried out.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to reporters.
An Associated Press photographer in Aswan said officers said an operation was underway but didn't elaborate. A joint police and military force was seen searching at least one home in the neighborhood where most of the killing took place, but it was not clear if they were looking for suspects or weapons.
The communication cut down also came soon after the country's chief prosecutor visited the area from Cairo. Prosecutor Hisham Barakat toured the area were the fighting took place, where several homes were torched, and where most of the 26, mostly from the Arab clan, were killed.
Security officials say members of the impoverished Arab clan are involved in arms and drugs smuggling. The fight took on a political overtone when the Arab clan accused the ethnic Nubians of supporting the military, while the Nubians say the Arabs back ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and are protected by officials loyal to longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Local leaders say police were mostly absent from the streets, causing the violence to spread. The governor appealed for the military to deploy troops there.
On Tuesday, 12 leaders from the Higher Council of Arab Tribes, including tribal leaders from Sinai and Marsa Matruh, visited Aswan in an attempt to negotiate an end to the dispute— a traditional mechanism employed by the state to deal with such conflicts, a member of the delegation said.
Salem Abu Ghazalah told private TV CBC that the group has suggested to the local governor extending the truce to a month to allow an investigation into what sparked the bloodshed. The leaders will take their suggestion to the feuding families.
Tribal fighting is not uncommon in Egypt, but is not regular in the largely tourist Aswan.
Violence generally has spiked in Egypt, particularly political violence in the aftermath of the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, largely targeting military and police. The government blames Morsi's group, the Muslim Brotherhood for orchestrating the violence to avenge the Islamist president's ouster and destabilize the government.
In a lengthy statement Tuesday, the Brotherhood's secretary-general, Mahmoud Hussein, said the group disavows all violence and anyone who engages in it. He said the Brotherhood seeks reform and change and does not use violent means to oppose the government.
"Whoever declares association to the group must adopt this path ... and if they call for anything else or chose another path other than the group's, then he is not a member of it and the group is not part of it, no matter what he says," Hussein said.
Associated Press writers Sabry Khaled and Haggag Salama contributed to this report from Aswan, Egypt.