Relatives of an Egyptian soldier mourn during the funeral of one of 16 soldiers killed in an attack by suspected militants in Sinai in Cairo. (Amr Nabil/AP)

In Egypt’s Sinai, violence poses new challenge for peacekeepers

A U.S.-military-dominated peacekeeping force of 1,650 troops in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is finding itself caught between restive Bedouin tribesmen and an escalating Egyptian army offensive against insurgents.

At least one of the militant groups operating in the Sinai has called for the expulsion of U.S. troops from the desert peninsula, raising the prospect that a military task force created three decades ago as a buffer between Egypt and Israel could become a target as tensions increase.

“We’re now confronted by a population that was once passive and peaceful and has now turned belligerent,” said Agustin Espinosa, the Uruguayan ambassador in Cairo, whose country has the fourth-largest contingent in the little-known Multinational Force and Observers (MFO). “For a force that has not been used to these type of external pressures and that is not configured as a strike force, this has created a new set of challenges.”

Growing lawlessness in northern Sinai has put the force on the defensive, raising questions about whether it is equipped to fulfill a peacekeeping mission amid fighting. The task force was created to ensure Egypt and Israel abided by the terms of a peace deal, including the demilitarization of the Sinai. Its American contingent includes 800 soldiers.

In recent months, Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai have held up convoys of international troops, refusing to let them pass until Egyptian authorities release imprisoned relatives. The tactic has proved successful. In March, tribesmen held one of the MFO’s main bases under siege for nearly a week, refusing to allow troops to leave or provisions to enter. In May, 10 Fijian soldiers were held hostage for two days.

U.S. concerns

The rise of militant groups in the Sinai, which rings Israel and has become a staging ground for cross-border attacks, has alarmed U.S. officials. The extent of the threat came into sharp focus Aug. 5, when gunmen ambushed an Egyptian checkpoint, commandeered Egyptian armored vehicles and stormed an Israeli border crossing.

In the wake of the attack, which left 16 Egyptian troops dead, U.S. officials have offered to provide expanded military assistance to Cairo. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told the Associated Press in a recent interview that the Pentagon has deployed a truck-mounted tracking system that will allow U.S. troops to monitor the deployment of Egyptian forces. He said Washington has not ruled out deploying additional forces to the Sinai to augment the U.S. unit.

“We just want to make sure that we know how those forces are deployed in order to ensure that we can more effectively go after those terrorists that would try to create an incident or terrorist act,” Panetta said.

The MFO began operations in 1982, becoming the most tangible element of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel brokered by President Jimmy Carter.

The pact ended years of brutal battles between the neighboring countries. The force was created to ensure that neither country kept a large security footprint along the border. The task was fairly straightforward for decades because Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally, kept peace with Israel.

After the authoritarian leader was toppled in February 2011, residents in the Sinai torched police stations and drove security forces from vast areas of the peninsula — acts carried out in revenge for a series of crackdowns on Islamists in the deeply conservative region. Following the revolt, hundreds of Islamists who had been detained by Mubarak’s security apparatus returned to the Sinai after being released or breaking out of prison.

Migrant smuggling, organ trafficking and an illicit weapons trade soared in the Sinai as the government, overwhelmed by crises in Cairo, largely abandoned the destitute region. Small cells of militants established training camps near the Israeli border and began using the area as a staging ground for attacks on the neighboring country.

“We made it clear to Egypt that they should do something about this,” said Itzhak Levanon, who was Israel’s ambassador in Cairo until last year. “Those people were out to destroy the future relations between both countries. But they decided not to act forcefully.”

As its soldiers began facing more hostility, the MFO beefed up security measures, according to the force’s 2011 annual report. Force leaders bought armored vehicles and fortified the fences around MFO bases.

MFO officials declined a request for an interview, citing the force’s preference to keep a low profile. The task force’s commander, Maj. Gen. Warren Whiting of New Zealand, has contended that the force is performing a vital task despite the growing challenges.

“With the current uncertainty in the Middle East, the role of the MFO is even more crucial to stability in the region,” Whiting said in a statement issued in May by his country’s military to mark the 30-year anniversary of the MFO. “Since the revolution both sides are talking so much more and the main conduit is through the MFO.”

The MFO has not been the target of militant groups in recent years, diplomats said, but the emergence of new groups and attacks carried out against the force last decade during a similar terrorism campaign have caused alarm.

Two MFO members were wounded in a 2005 roadside bombing. A year later, two suicide bombers targeted MFO personnel but caused no casualties.

Insurgent groups

Little is known about the strength and identity of the handful of new militant groups that have taken root in the Sinai. One that announced its existence on Aug. 1, using the name Soldiers of Islamic Law, called for the expulsion of U.S. troops from the Sinai and urged Egyptian security forces to refrain from intervening in the “fighting with the Jews.”

Another group issued a statement last week saying Egyptian security forces should not get caught in the crossfire of its fight against Israel.

“We don’t want our strength to turn against you for any reason,” said the statement, attributed to al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya and translated by the Site Intelligence group.

Edgar Cely Nunez, the Colombian ambassador in Cairo, whose country has the second-largest contingent in the force, said Colombian soldiers have managed to defuse situations that could have led to violence. The Colombian group, which is in charge of security, is made up mostly of professional soldiers with vast experience, said Cely, a former military chief.

“We worry about any incident that could generate even the slightest threat to our men in the Sinai,” he said.

So far, the threat has been manageable, Cely said, and nations with troops in the Sinai remain committed to their mission.

“For both countries, it’s beneficial to have a force that can alert them to a situation that could have consequences later on,” he said.

Henry Shull contributed to this report.