Beirut, Lebanon, May 28 – Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused both Egyptian security forces and insurgents of committing “war crimes” in North Sinai, the scene of a bloody years-long insurgency and military crackdown.
“While Egyptian military and police forces were responsible for the majority of abuses documented in the report, extremist militants have also committed horrific crimes,” the New York-based group said in a 134-page report.
“Some of the abuses carried out by government forces and the militants, which this report documents, are war crimes, and their widespread and systematic nature could amount to crimes against humanity.”
Egypt has for years been fighting a hardened insurgency in North Sinai, which escalated following the 2013 military ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
Since then, militants have killed hundreds of police officers and soldiers.
Military spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifai rejected the HRW report as “untruthful”.
“It is based on unverified sources. Some politicised organisations are intent on tarnishing Egypt’s image and its armed forces with baseless claims,” he told AFP.
In February 2018, the army launched an operation against the militants, focusing mainly on North Sinai province.
According to a tally of death tolls given by the armed forces, around 650 militants and about 45 soldiers have since been killed.
HRW estimated at least 3,076 alleged militants and 1,226 security forces were killed in fighting between 2014 and 2018.
The watchdog compiled the report over two years, interviewing more than 50 residents of the Sinai Peninsula, where independent media coverage is effectively banned and a state of emergency has been in force since 2013.
In late 2017, North Sinai was the scene of the deadliest attack in Egypt’s modern history when militants killed more than 300 worshippers at a mosque, without any group claiming responsibility.
Islamist militants have kidnapped and tortured scores of residents as well as attacking security forces.
Security forces have also targeted Sinai residents, arresting thousands and forcibly “disappearing” dozens, according to the HRW report.
It estimates that over 12,000 people were arrested from July 2013 until December 2018.
Children as young as 12 have been detained in routine sweeps and ended up in secret prisons, it said.
Alongside the report, a video was released showing footage of air strikes on residents’ homes and extrajudicial killings of suspected jihadists by security forces.
“Why all of this? Should we carry weapons and work with the militants or work with the army or live like victims? Everyone is preying on us,” said one North Sinai resident interviewed anonymously for the report.
Rifai, the military spokesman, said Egypt’s forces had taken the lives of residents into consideration with “air strikes taking place outside of residential areas”.
HRW called on the United States to halt all military assistance to Egypt until gross violations are fully investigated.
“Instead of protecting Sinai residents in their fight against militants, the Egyptian security forces have shown utter contempt to residents’ lives, turning their daily life into a nonstop nightmare of abuses,” said Michael Page, the group’s deputy Middle East director.
“This horrific treatment of Sinai residents should be another wake-up call to countries like the US and France that heedlessly endorse Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts.”