Egypt releases Sudanese refugees


Wed, Jan 04, 2006 - Page 7

Hundreds of Sudanese have been released from police detention camps onto the streets of this city with no money, no place to live -- and in many cases, no shoes -- three days after riot police attacked a squatter camp set up as a protest to press the UN to relocate the migrants to another country.

The walled-in courtyard of Sacred Heart Church here was packed on Monday with men and women searching for a blanket, a meal, a place to live, word of a lost relative, anything that might help rebuild a life after the police charged their camp on Friday. The attack officially left 26 dead, including seven small children, and many others injured.

"It is a terrible situation," said the Reverend Simon Mbuthia, a priest at Sacred Heart, a Catholic church, as he considered the crowd of people looking for help.

"The government here has done nothing," he said.

Abdul Aziz Muhammad Ahmed, 29, sat shivering on the steps just beneath the metal door leading to Mbuthia's offices.

"I'm not sick," he said through a far-off gaze. "My daughter, Asma, was killed."

Asma was 9 months old, and her uncle said he dropped her when the police clubbed him.

"I haven't told my wife yet," Ahmed said. "She is already sick."

The government waited for three months before sending the police out to empty the squatter camp, in one of Cairo's more upscale neighborhoods.

The police yelled at squatters through bullhorns, ordering them to leave, and used water cannon when they refused. After the Sudanese remained defiant, the police attacked.

So many were left dead, and the international condemnation was so embarrassing, that President Hosni Mubarak has told the attorney general to investigate.

But the government's official position is that the Sudanese were to blame. Magdy Rady, the government's chief spokesman, said that the Sudanese injured their own people by trampling those who collapsed, and he said they also attacked the police, injuring more than 70 officers.

The Sudanese were unarmed and many were barefoot. The police were wearing riot gear, including helmets with face shields, and wielded truncheons.

"We are sorry," Rady said.

"What happened is unfortunate, it is sad, but it was not the intention of the police. The Sudanese pushed us to do this. They do not want even to settle in Egypt. They want to move to another country. We did not know what else to do. It was a very difficult situation," he added.

After clearing the park, the police took all of the Sudanese, about 3,000, to detention camps where they were asked for identification papers. Those with passports or UN documents allowing them to be in Egypt were being released.

Those without documents, or those who had twice been denied refugee status by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, would probably be sent back to Sudan, Rady said.