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CAIRO – A leading international rights group on Tuesday accused Egypt's security forces of committing widespread abuses against civilians in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt has been battling Islamic militants for years. Human Rights Watch alleged that some of the abuses amount to war crimes.
In a 134-page report, the group said it documented arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, and possibly unlawful air and ground attacks against civilians.
"Some of these abuses, part of an ongoing campaign against members of the local ISIS affiliate, the Sinai Province group, amount to war crimes," the report said. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
Egyptian officials had no immediate comment.
The militants have also committed horrific crimes, including kidnapping and torture of residents, some of whom were killed, the New York-based watchdog said. They have also killed captured members of the security forces, HRW said.
"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, HRW's deputy Mideast and North Africa director.
Access to northern Sinai has been restricted for years, making it difficult to independently verify what is happening on the ground. HRW said the findings were based, in part, on interviews with Sinai residents and former detainees.
The group also said, citing government statements and media reports, that 3,076 suspected militants and 1,226 members of the military and police were killed in fighting between January 2014 and June 2018 in Sinai. It said, however, that Egyptian authorities frequently counted civilians among the alleged militants killed and that hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded in the violence.
The government has not provided a tally for civilians killed in Sinai.
HRW said the Egyptian military has recruited Sinai residents into a militia to help it "by providing intelligence and carrying out missions on the military's behalf." But these militia members also used their powers for arbitrary arrests and to settle scores and personal disputes.
"They have also participated in torture and extrajudicial killings," the group said.
The insurgency in Sinai intensified after the military's 2013 ouster of Mohammed Morsi, a freely elected but divisive president. Morsi was toppled amid mass protests against him, a year after he took office.
In February last year, Egypt began a massive anti-militant operation, mainly focused on Sinai but also on parts of Egypt's Nile Delta and the Western Desert along the porous border with Libya.