By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 31, 2005
CAIRO, Dec. 30 -- A three-month standoff between Sudanese refugees and Egyptian authorities climaxed in bloodshed early Friday when club-wielding police invaded a refugee squatter camp, setting off a melee in which at least 20 and perhaps 26 Sudanese were killed.
Some refugees fought back, using tent poles as weapons. An Egyptian Interior Ministry statement, which acknowledged 12 deaths, said 74 police officers were wounded. Officials blamed the deaths on a stampede.
The refugees set up the camp in a park in September to press their demands for resettlement in a Western country. They refused to return to their unstable homeland despite a January peace deal that ended years of north-south civil war.
After the peace agreement, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees stopped registering Sudanese for political asylum. Protesters resisted police orders and appeals from the Sudanese Embassy to leave.
At about 1 a.m. Friday, about 3,000 helmeted riot police surrounded the park, which is located in the relatively affluent Mohandessin district on the west side of the Nile River. They fired water cannons at some of the 2,000 refugees gathered there. After trying to drag people one by one onto buses for about two hours, the police invaded.
As is common with riot police in Egypt, the stiff rows of officers soon turned into a throbbing mob of uncontrolled baton-swingers. Police pursued refugees to the buses and whacked them as they boarded, including women and children.
Boutrous Deng, a Sudanese protest leader, told the Associated Press that 26 Sudanese were killed -- 17 men, 2 women and 7 children. Hospital officials earlier put the figure at 23, according to the Reuters news agency. Security officials cited anonymously by the AP said there were 20 deaths.
By dawn, the park was cleared, and about 1,000 refugees were transported to police barracks outside the city limits, Interior Ministry officials said. Other Sudanese huddled in parks and on street corners elsewhere in the sprawling capital. Piles of luggage and clothing remained where the protest camp had stood.
Tension over refugee arrivals from the south is felt across North Africa. Sub-Saharan Africans, fleeing violence and hunger in their homelands, have flocked to countries along Africa's Mediterranean coast. Many then board boats to try to reach Spain or Italy.
The European Union has pressured North African governments to curb the migrant traffic to its shores. Compliance commonly ends in brutality. In Libya, which until recently permitted sub-Saharan Africans to enter without a visa, reports of refugees disappearing without a trace after arrest are common.
On Thursday, seven migrants fled Morocco by clambering over a razor-wire fence into Spain's North African enclave of Melilla. In September and October, hundreds of African migrants stormed Melilla and Ceuta, another Spanish possession in North Africa. In separate incidents, Moroccan and Spanish police shot at the crowds, killing 11.
The exact number of Sudanese in Egypt is not known, but estimates range from 200,000 to 2 million.
Egypt's Interior Ministry said police were responding to the needs of the UNHCR, which, according to a ministry statement, had received "threats to attack the commission offices and its members." The ministry also asserted that the refugees ignored a Sudanese Embassy deadline for them to abandon the park or face the consequences.
"Attempts had been made to convince them to disperse, but to no avail," the ministry statement said. "The Egyptian security forces were implementing the deadline imposed by the Sudanese Embassy. The migrants' leaders resorted to incitement and attacks against the police."
The UNHCR reported last week that it had reached a compromise with some protest leaders. The agency pledged to resume hearing some asylum cases and offered a one-time payment of up to $700 for housing expenses.
In Geneva, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said in a statement: "I am deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic events early today in Cairo. There is no justification for such violence and loss of life."
The Sudanese government expressed understanding of the police action, with a spokesman saying the Egyptian government "was within its rights to reestablish its control."