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Sep 22, 4:25 AM EDT

Human Rights Watch says civilians harmed as Egypt military creates northern Sinai buffer zone

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AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid

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CAIRO (AP) -- The Egyptian military's campaign against Islamic insurgents in northern Sinai is harming thousands of civilians and risks turning more people against the government, Human Rights Watch said in a report Tuesday.

The government has evicted 3,200 families over the past two years, and razed hundreds of hectares (acres) of farmland and thousands of homes in its bid to destroy smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip with Egypt's northern Sinai Peninsula, the rights group said.

"Destroying homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods is a textbook example of how to lose a counterinsurgency campaign," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization's director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"The Egyptian authorities provided residents with little or no warning of the evictions, no temporary housing, mostly inadequate compensation for their destroyed homes - none at all for their farmland," the organization said in a statement.

In a statement that coincided with the HRW report, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government denied that it was violating human rights of residents of the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula and was taking measures to protect civilian lives and property.

Egypt's government wants to create a buffer zone along its border with the Gaza Strip to destroy a cross-border network of tunnels. The government accuses Islamic militants of using smuggling tunnels to move between Sinai and Gaza, which is ruled by the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

The remote territory is characterized by hardscrabble towns, desert and mountainous areas suitable for guerrilla operations. Some disaffected local Bedouin tribesmen in the region, which suffers from economic hardship, have turned to smuggling, organized crime and, in some cases, radical Islam.

The Egyptian government has been battling a long-running insurgency in the region, which escalated after the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 amid massive protests against his rule and cracked down on Islamic groups. A local Islamic State affiliate has been claiming responsibility for militant attacks in northern Sinai. While violence has largely been confined to the region, bombs have also hit other parts of the country, including Cairo.

Human Rights Watch said the United States had trained the Egyptian military to use "sophisticated tunnel-detecting technology" to find and destroy tunnels and avoid wiping out entire neighborhoods.

The organization also said it received video footage showing American-made M60 tank shelling a building to demolish it. It called on the United States to access the area and make sure its weapons aren't being used in violation of human rights.

As Egypt fights insurgents in northern Sinai, "it should do so in a way that does not arbitrarily harm civilians and violate their right to housing and their protections during forced evictions," the organization said.

Northern Sinai has been largely closed off to media, and it is difficult to independently verify reports from the area.

The Egyptian government's statement said authorities have "adopted a comprehensive plan" to fight militants in northern Sinai while complying with recognized international human rights laws and protecting the lives and property of civilians. The statement made no mention of the HRW report but was a clear reaction to the allegations in it.

The government plans in the restive north of the peninsula "guarantee the protection of the lives and property of citizens," the Cabinet said, adding that it is compensating for property losses due to the operations but offered little specifics.

"Residents are constantly informed to stay at home when security operations are underway," the statement added, stressing the government is keen to provide all services and basic goods to the people in northern Sinai.

It also said that said some buildings were evacuated mainly "to ensure the safety of their residents and to prevent terrorists from using them as human shields."


Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.

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