Egypt Arrests Afghan-War Vets in Crackdown on Radicals

EGYPTIAN veterans of the war in Afghanistan are part of a campaign to destabilize the government in Cairo, according to an Egyptian intelligence source and another senior government official.

Police have imprisoned 170 Egyptian veterans in a crackdown on suspected Islamic fundamentalists, following clashes between militants and security forces. The arrests, made over the past few months, are part of a broad effort to halt political violence, partly to protect tourists visiting the ancient sites of Upper Egypt.

"The police know everything about those who have gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan," says Adil Lemouni, a lawyer who represents fundamentalists. "As soon as they return they are arrested."

Until now the Egyptian government has been silent on the role of Egyptians in the war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Officials have also been reluctant to acknowledge the arrest of returning mujahideen, but fundamentalist sources claim hundreds of veterans have been detained.

The mujahideen are suspected of taking part in recent attacks against police and Christians in support of the fundamentalists' campaign against the government, a regime they see as corrupt and irreligious.

The returning fighters have formed a "military wing" for Islamic groups active in the mostly peasant communities of Upper Egypt, according to Mohammed Abdel Moh-sen Salah, general secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party in Assiut province. The veterans had set up a headquarters in the Assiut village of Dayrut, Mr. Salah said in a recent interview. "They said their purpose was to train and fight in Afghanistan," he said. "But the real reason these Egyptians went was to receive training and come back here to fight."

"Ninety-five percent of Jihad [the military wing] in Assiut are in police hands," Salah asserted. "The 5 percent remaining are hiding in the cornfields. Now that the corn is being harvested, we expect to capture the rest of them."

The men are being held under Egypt's far-reaching emergency laws, passed after President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination, which effectively allow officials to imprison suspects indefinitely without charging them. Effect on tourists

Egyptian officials are worried that the tension in Upper Egypt will slow tourist travel, and some fundamentalist groups have warned that they may begin to strike foreigners. There are signs that such a campaign has begun:

* On Oct. 6 a bomb exploded aboard a Cairo-bound train as it stopped to take on passengers in Dayrut. Four Egyptians were killed in the blast.

* Only days earlier, a tourist boat carrying 140 Germans was fired upon by masked gunmen as it sailed the Nile just south of Dayrut. Three Egyptians aboard were wounded.

As a precaution against further violence, uniformed and plainclothes police will guard trains traveling through southern Egypt. Security sources say the measures will apply both to local and express trains used by foreign tourists traveling to Luxor and Aswan, site of most of Egypt's Pharaonic monuments.

The move follows a decision to station boats bearing well-armed police at regular intervals along the Nile in Upper Egypt. According to officials now stationed near the scene of the recent attacks, police have orders to "shoot to kill" anyone suspected of threatening tourists on the Nile. Identifying mujahideen

According to a senior Egyptian military source, Pakistani and Saudi intelligence have been cooperating with Egypt in identifying former mujahideen before they reenter Egypt.

In the 1980s hundreds of religious Egyptians traveled to Pakistan for training in the mujahideen camps. The campaign against the Soviets was seen as a holy war by devout Muslims.

Since the pullout of Soviet troops from Afghanistan two years ago, neighboring Pakistan has been discouraging Arab fighters from remaining there. The return of Egyptian mujahideen fighters to Egypt early this year coincides with a marked escalation in antigovernment and sectarian violence.

In addition to the Afghan veterans, more than 200 people are being held by Assiut police in connection with fundamentalist attacks. But the actual number of those arrested and later released without charge in recent months may be in the thousands.

Detainees, according to lawyers and human-rights activists, range from teenage students to farmers attending traditional religious festivals. Sources say police are discouraging any events where large numbers of people gather.

Samir Khashabal, an Assiut lawyer, questions whether the police campaign against suspected extremists is reducing or worsening tension in the area. "When the government exerts pressure and abuses people's human rights, then, from a particular section of the population, there is a reaction," he says. "Some people express themselves in the newspapers, opposing the government. Another kind of people turn to force. The government reaction to their reaction has only escalated the violence."

The actual number of people imprisoned is unknown. Until charges are filed, arrests often go unreported, leading to the so-called "disappearance" of people in police custody. According to lawyers, families of the missing fear harassment or arrest by the police if they press for information about their loved ones.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.