Crackdown Fails to Curb Egypt's Islamic Militants

In Aswan Province, lively trade in arms with neighboring Sudan continues despite security measures from Cairo against fundamentalists

BLAMING neighboring Sudan for a worsening tide of violence inside its own borders, the Egyptian government says it has stepped up efforts to stop the illegal arms trade across the Sudan-Egypt border.

But according to both local residents and religious extremists, local police turn a blind eye to the activities of Arab tribes long engaged in smuggling along desert and mountainous routes well away from border checkpoints.

A visit to Aswan Province, which borders Sudan, suggests that complacent local officials are allowing smugglers to bring arms into Egypt with the understanding that they will not sell the weapons to religious militants.

Islamic militants interviewed in Aswan and Egyptians in the nearby town of Edfu said smugglers continue to move weapons across the border from Sudan. But, they said, police have warned that the guns must not be sold to religious militants.

For months the government has blamed neighboring Sudan for aggravating a worsening security situation inside Egypt. Islamic fundamentalists, some belonging to an underground organization called the Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), are fighting to establish a more Islamic government in Egypt. At least 77 people have died since violence between fundamentalists and police flared early this year. In recent months, militants have targeted tourists, killing one British woman in an October attack, as a means of hurting the government economically.

Interior Minister Abdel Halim Moussa said early this month the Islamic government of Sudan, with Iran's support, was training and arming Egyptian extremists to cause unrest inside Egypt.

He said, echoing other government pronouncements, that new security measures including helicopter surveillance have been introduced to stop the illegal movement of wanted men and smuggled arms between Egypt and Sudan.

But, even as the measures are adopted, the region's traditional disregard for central government authority and international borders appears little changed. In small villages surrounding Aswan, Arab traders give their occupation as "commerce" - the local euphemism for smuggling.

Gen. Sami Abdel Gewab, Aswan Province's deputy director of police, contradicted the official accounts in a recent interview.

"The Cairo newspapers are giving it more than it is really worth. There are some very small cases but they exaggerate it into a big thing," he said. "The proof is there have been no aggressive events against tourists from Edfu to Aswan. The extremists here are in a nonviolent stage of spreading the call" of Islam.

The senior police officer dismissed reports that Sudan-based extremists were using the desert border to smuggle weapons to comrades in Egypt.

"If there is smuggling between Egypt and Sudan I have no knowledge of it," General Sami said. He added that there had been no arrests for weapons smuggling in at least one year.

"What we heard from the interior minister is that there are military training camps in Sudan. Maybe. They said there was a possibility of weapons coming in from Sudan. We're the people most able to say what's been caught. And presently that's nothing."

But he added that cross-border arms sales are necessary for people "to defend themselves" from "vendettas" - family or clan disputes sometimes lasting generations. Sami and other officers seemed unconcerned that such weapons might end up in the hands of militant Islamists opposed to the state.

The commanding police officer also denied that intelligence staff had been transferred from Cairo to upgrade the area's policing.

Yet he spoke in the presence of two senior intelligence officers, both from Cairo. When asked what the Cairo officers' work was in Aswan, one replied, laughing: "Tell her I work in [religious] endowments, family planning."

At the same time, however, local police have initiated a crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists in the area. Some mosques used by radicals have been closed and their preachers arrested. The police station where Sami was interviewed is reputed by the militants to be the site of torture of suspected Muslim extremists.

Only a few blocks inside the town, in a rundown housing area, the Gamaa Islamiya preaches to its followers at a mosque called "the merciful," a label the group uses frequently for its mosques.

One of Aswan's Gamaa leaders, Sheikh Abdullah Abdel Kadr, says he had been on the run for two months, after a series of arrests and releases. He lost sight in his left eye, he says, following torture by police in Cairo.

"These smugglers are not religious people. They don't care if Islam spreads of not. They are only concerned with making money," he says.

"The government knows from the beginning their names and every two or three months they gather up all these smugglers and make a meeting and say `You can sell to anybody you want - except for the Islamic groups. If you do, you risk death.' "

Sheikh Abdullah continues: "When the government is unable to point to the source of weapons being used in terrorist attacks, then they say these weapons are coming from Iran, Sudan, or Libya."

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