CAIRO — At least 15 Sudanese migrants trying to cross from Egypt into Israel were shot and killed at the border early Sunday, possibly by Egyptian police officers, according to security officials and news reports.
The death toll, if confirmed, would be one of the highest in years for migrants and asylum seekers making the treacherous journey across the Sinai Peninsula into Israel. People coming from Sudan, Eritrea and other countries in East Africa have been tortured by traffickers, beaten or shot by the Egyptian security services and have faced open-ended detention by the Israeli authorities, according to human rights groups.
The circumstances of Sunday’s shooting were unclear, and Egyptian government officials refused to comment on the deaths. A senior security official in northern Sinai, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said that the Egyptian border police had shot the migrants when they ignored warnings not to cross the border fence. Fifteen were killed and at least eight others wounded, the official said, adding that another eight migrants had been arrested.
But another Egyptian security official said that the Sudanese migrants had been caught in the middle of a shootout between Bedouin smugglers and the Egyptian police, and that they had been killed in the crossfire. And Reuters, citing security sources, said the police had found the migrants’ bodies near the border.
It was impossible to reconcile the conflicting accounts. Egypt’s government, which has been battling an insurgency in northern Sinai for several years, severely restricts access for the news media to towns in the area, as well as to the border zone.
Human rights groups have been warning of the perils facing migrants in Sinai for the last decade. A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch said that the Egyptian police had killed at least 33 migrants trying to cross into Israel over a 17-month period. Despite the danger on the Egyptian side, Israeli officials routinely returned the migrants, putting them into Egyptian custody, the report said.
Even before the migrants reach the frontier, they have faced torture, sexual assault and other abuse by traffickers demanding money — essentially ransom — from the migrants’ families in their home countries, human rights groups say.
The flow of migrants has slowed over the last three years as northern Sinai has been transformed into a military zone, and as Israel has completed a huge steel fence, topped with barbed wire, along the border. But many still brave the risks. This month, Egyptian security forces shot at a group of asylum seekers, mostly from Sudan, near the border, killing one person and wounding five others, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
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