CAIRO: Egyptian police beefed up security around a Sinai pipeline that supplies Israel with natural gas after a group of wanted Bedouin threatened to sabotage it, security officials said on Monday.
The Bedouin group, which consists of at least a dozen armed fugitives, has clashed with police since its leader Salem Ali Salem, known as Salem Abu Lafi, escaped from a prison truck in an ambush that killed two policeman in February.
Security officials said police had received warnings the group threatened to attack the pipeline, which since 2008 has supplied Israel with 1.7 billion cubic meters (60 billion cubic feet) of gas a year despite angry opposition to the supply deal within Egypt.
An Israeli infrastructure ministry spokeswoman said Egypt provides about a third of Israel’s natural gas.
Police relations with Sinai Bedouin are usually tense, with Bedouin complaining of routine harassment and discrimination.
Security officials said police were also increasing their presence around El-Arish airport and the Al-Ouja crossing with Israel.
A Bedouin activist in central Sinai, where Abu Lafi is believed to be hiding, said police were exploiting the threat to crack down on the Bedouin.
"There were threats about the pipeline. But the Bedouin have not reached this point of escalation," said Moussa El-Dilh, member of the Tarabin tribe and Bedouin spokesman.
"We are Bedouin. The police don’t distinguish between outlaws and others," he said, adding that the threats were in response to a security crackdown after Abu Lafi’s escape.
Abu Lafi was jailed after Bedouin tribesman briefly held dozens of policemen in response to the killing of three Bedouin in a protest in November 2008.
Police have denied allegations that they arrested Abu Lafi’s relatives to pressure him to surrender.
Abu Lafi escaped from police clutches last February during his transfer to another prison, an incident which led to the death of two policemen.
It took place during a prisoner transfer from Ismailia to Al-Arish. Armed Bedouins in three cars attacked the bus in an area called Be’er El Abd, killing officer Ahmed Osama Hafez of the criminal division unit of North Sinai, and a policeman while two other policemen were wounded.
Rights groups have criticized Egypt’s policies towards the Bedouin, who were subjected to harsh police treatment after a series of bombings in Sinai resorts between 2004 and 2006, which killed dozens of Egyptians and foreign tourists.