An Egyptian military campaign to defeat Islamic State militants in northern Sinai Peninsula is choking essential food and medical supplies to residents of the desert region, Human Rights Watch said. The army denied the charge.
The New York-based organisation warned of a wider humanitarian crisis if North Sinai continued to be cut off from the Egyptian mainland, saying the military actions “border on collective punishment”.
The army launched an operation in February to crush jihadists waging an insurgency that killed hundreds of soldiers, police and residents.
Air strikes and raids killed scores of suspected militants since then, the military said, as it imposes curfews and movement restrictions around towns in North Sinai. The army said it is winning the battle.
A military spokesman denied there were shortages, saying it was providing food and medical support where it operated. The HRW report used “undocumented sources” in its report, he said.
“Thousands of food parcels have been and are being provided to people in North Sinai,” Colonel Tamer al-Rifai added.
International news outlets are prevented from travelling to North Sinai to report.
Residents said food supplies, medicine and fuel were insufficient and movement restrictions meant most people were unable to leave the region, HRW reported.
“A counter-terrorism operation that imperils the flow of essential goods to hundreds of thousands of civilians is unlawful and unlikely to stem violence,” HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson said.
The report said authorities banned the sale of petrol and cut communication lines, water and electricity in some areas of North Sinai including near the Gaza Strip border.
Residents told Reuters last month they often waited hours for bread handouts not guaranteed to arrive.
Defeating Islamists and restoring security after years of unrest after Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising has been a promise of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, re-elected in March in a landslide victory against no real opposition.
Sisi’s critics say he presided over Egypt’s worst crackdown on dissent. Supporters say such measures are needed to bring stability and improve the country’s hard-hit economy.
In Sinai, analysts and foreign diplomats say heavy-handed military tactics including air strikes and demolitions of populated areas failed to beat the Islamist insurgency.