A warning shot?
What does the rudimentary roadside bomb that injured two Canadian members of an international peace-keeping force in Sinai signify, asks Jailan Halawi
In what appeared to be a message about the presence of foreign peace-keepers in the Sinai Peninsula near the Gaza Strip, unidentified assailants detonated a crude roadside bomb that slightly injured two female members of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) and damaged their patrol vehicle on Monday.
The blast took place near an MFO camp in Al-Gourah, nearly 30km southeast of Arish on Sinai's Mediterranean coast, about 15km from the Egyptian border with Gaza at Rafah. Reportedly, the blast went off around 6.30am on the highway about two kilometres from the MFO base.
According to North Sinai Governor Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, the two wounded soldiers were in stable condition. A natural gas canister that was planted on the roadside and detonated through a wire, Abdel-Hamid said, caused the explosion. A second wired canister failed to explode. According to security officials, the canisters were filled with explosives.
Abdel-Hamid, however, called the explosions "firecrackers" that were meant more as warnings than to cause major damage.
According to Palestinian Authority representatives quoted by the press, the blast was loud enough to be heard in the Gaza Strip.
The Department of National Defence in Ottawa confirmed that the two members of the MFO were from Canada; although slightly injured, they have returned to their normal duties following a medical check up, the Canadians said in an official statement. The statement only said the vehicle carrying the Canadian personnel was travelling on an approved route.
An MFO spokesperson quoted by AP refused to call the incident an attack, "because it was on a public highway and we're not certain of how it occurred."
The blast came as Egypt is expected to deploy several hundred troops along its border with the Gaza Strip to help maintain security as Israel implements its withdrawal plan and evacuates its settlers from the occupied territories. The Egyptian forces are meant to boost security in the area. The incident also took place while Egyptian security forces have been looking for Islamist militants in Sinai suspected to have taken part in the 23 July triple bombings in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh that left 67 dead and scores injured.
One of the three groups that claimed responsibility for the Sharm El-Sheikh blasts issued an online statement saying it was also behind the MFO explosion. "Here are the lions of jihad striking the Sinai Peninsula once again despite the precautions which the infidel security forces have taken," said the statement, which was issued by a group calling itself the "Mujahideen of Egypt." The statement claimed that the attack left three Israelis and two Canadians dead, figures which were neither confirmed nor reported by any other source.
A security source speaking on customary condition of anonymity said representatives of countries contributing to the MFO met in Cairo following the incident to discuss the situation. The MFO is made up of 1,800 members from 11 countries. The 10 currently participating states are Australia, Canada, Colombia, Fiji, France, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, the United States and Uruguay.
The MFO is an independent peace-keeping mission created as a result of the 1978 Camp David accords and the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Since 1982, various nations have contributed military and civilian personnel to the mission.
Canada's contribution is a 29-member team, which include air traffic controllers, administrators and support personnel, all located in Al-Gourah. The Canadian contribution is called Operation Calumet. When the operation began in 1986, Canada sent a helicopter unit and 140 personnel to Egypt, a force that has since been largely scaled back.
In an initial reaction to the incident, the United Nations office in Cairo issued a statement warning its staff to avoid the entire Sinai Peninsula until the truth is determined. It further urged all agency heads to "contact any UN staff currently in Sinai, or planning a trip in Sinai, to immediately revise their itineraries."
On Tuesday, the US Embassy in Cairo issued a similar warning to its nationals.