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23 April 2024

Al Qaeda among Egypt prison escapees

By Reuters

Militant Islamists linked to al Qaeda were among the thousands of prisoners who walked free from Egyptian jails last month during the turmoil triggered by a popular uprising against the president, the vice president said.

Omar Suleiman said the escapees included members of "Jihadist organisations" who had not renounced their ideology or agreed to halt violence, the state news agency reported. He was speaking during a meeting with Egyptian journalists on Tuesday.

Suleiman said the Egyptian intelligence service he has headed for years had put "a lot of effort" into securing the extradition to Egypt of militants from abroad "linked to external leaderships, particularly al Qaeda".

The escapees included prisoners who "had not agreed to the initiative to halt violence and are still convinced that society is godless and this is a great threat", he said. "We need a lot of effort to get them back (to jail)," he said.

He appeared to be referring to a ceasefire declared by the al-Gama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) in 1997, the year the group massacred 58 tourists in Luxor, southern Egypt.

The country has been a breeding ground for militant Islamists. Ayman al-Zawahari, the deputy leader of al Qaeda, is Egyptian. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, was also Egyptian.

Egyptian security forces battled militant Sunni Islamists for much of the 1990s.

In the days following the eruption of the Egyptian revolt on Jan. 25, Egyptian police largely disappeared from the streets, leaving a vacuum that was filled by looting and vigilanteism. Suleiman has pledged an investigation. Many Egyptians believe there was conspiracy to create lawlessness.

January's escapees included a member of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Islamist movement. Sami Chehab, accused of plotting attacks in Egypt, was already back in Beirut by the time news of his escape was made public.

Hezbollah said he had been working to help supply weapons to the Gaza Strip through the Sinai Peninsula.