EL-ARISH, Egypt – Police are searching for five alleged Al Qaeda members who are believed to be hiding in the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula and to be plotting terror attacks, a senior security official said Friday.
It was the first time Egyptian officials have spoken of a possible Al Qaeda presence in the Sinai, where militants carried out bomb attacks against a string of tourist resorts since October 2004, killing 124 people.
The southern part of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula has been on high security alert since Wednesday after Israel warned its citizens of imminent terror attacks. Hundreds of Israeli tourists started leaving the Sinai through the Taba border crossing following instructions from Israeli authorities not to travel to the popular vacation destination.
The five suspects are believed to have entered Egypt on forged passports and to have explosives in their possession, said Interior Ministry official Col. Wagdi Ramzy. Copies of the passports have been provided to security checkpoints at the entrances of tourist resorts in Sinai.
"The interior ministry received urgent news from inside and outside Egypt that there are some members of Al Qaeda planning to carry out attacks in Sharm el-Sheik and Dahab," said Ramzy, who oversees tourist security in the north of the Sinai peninsula.
Dahab was hit in a bombing attack in April, killing 23 people, while Sharm el-Sheik was the scene of a July 2005 triple bombing that killed 64.
Egyptian officials have never said Al Qaeda was involved in those attacks, insisting they were carried out by a domestic group called Tawhid and Jihad, which they also blame for the October 2004 bombings in the resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan, which killed 34 people.
Fears of Al Qaeda activity in Egypt have grown since the terror network's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri said in an August videotape that a revived faction of the Egyptian militant group Gamaa Islamiya was joining Al Qaeda. Gamaa Islamiya was the biggest militant group during a campaign of violence in Egypt in the 1990s.
Ramzy named the five alleged Al Qaeda militants as Abdel Baki Mohammed Bassouni, Islam Talaat, Ismail Ismail, Hassan Abu Awni, and Sherif Mohammed. He said their nationalities were not known.
Already police have rounded up dozens of suspects believed to have links to Islamic groups operating in Sinai.