CAIRO (AP) — Egypt must launch an independent and thorough investigation into the recent killing of 10 men by security forces in the Sinai Peninsula, Amnesty International said on Monday.
The government announced earlier this month that the 10 had been killed in a shootout in the northern Sinai city of al-Arish. But in a Monday statement, the London-based advocacy group repeated what the families of the slain men already claim — that at least six of them had already been in police custody for weeks before their deaths.
Authorities deny the charge and insist the men had left their families to join the local affiliate of the Islamic State group and that they later participated in a string of attacks targeting security forces in Sinai.
"The Egyptian judicial authorities must conduct an impartial, independent and thorough investigation into the killing of 10 men by the Ministry of Interior," Amnesty said. They must bring those responsible to justice, it added.
Hundreds of el-Arish residents along with relatives of the 10 men held an angry meeting on Jan. 15, the day after the Interior Ministry reported the deadly shootout. They threatened civil disobedience, demanded that those responsible for the "extrajudicial" killings be brought to justice and called on Sinai lawmakers in the national parliament to quit in protest.
Last week, thousands took part in funerals for some of the 10 men in el-Arish, chanting anti-government slogans and declaring the men "martyrs."
The meeting and the rowdy funerals were a rare display of dissent in northern Sinai, for years the main theater of hostilities between government forces and militants. They also reflected a higher-than-usual degree of discontent over what rights activists see as the heavy handedness of security forces in the rugged and mountainous region, including collective punishment following particularly deadly attacks against government forces.
In its Monday statement, Amnesty said the Egyptian government has used security threats in Sinai as a pretext to clampdown on human rights, claiming that thousands of families had their homes demolished and were forcibly evicted without being provided alternative accommodation. Reportedly, it added, hundreds more are held under conditions of enforced disappearance or arbitrarily detained outside of judicial oversight.
Cities and villages in northern Sinai, it added, have suffered economically as a result of the curfews imposed in many areas, shortages of food and medical supplies as well as power and water cuts.
The government has consistently denied similar charges, arguing that northern Sinai residents fully supported security forces fighting the militants and relied on the government for their security.
A popular backlash against the security forces could significantly complicate their mission since government forces rely on local residents in gathering information about the militants, who have routinely killed alleged informants as a warning to others. The conflict is ongoing amid a near-total ban on media access to northern Sinai, leaving local and foreign news organizations relying on military and police statements for coverage.
The insurgency grew more deadly and widespread after the military's 2013 ouster of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, whose one year in office proved divisive.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led Morsi's ouster when he was his defense minister, said this month that 25,000 soldiers were deployed in northern Sinai to fight the militants, a previously undisclosed figure that underlined the magnitude of the challenge the military faces.
Earlier on Monday, Egypt's army said militants had killed five off-duty soldiers in Sinai.