CAIRO -- President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday announced the release of seven Egyptian security officers who had been kidnapped nearly a week ago in the lawless Sinai Desert, ending days of mounting anxiety over the government's apparent inability to secure even its own soldiers and the police in the area.
The persistent lawlessness of Sinai since the Egyptian revolution has become an international concern because the region borders Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and this week a strike by police officers angry about the kidnapping had closed police stations and border crossings around the area. The crisis recalled an attack on a Sinai military checkpoint in August that resulted in the deaths of 16 soldiers, humiliated the Egyptian military and helped compel the generals who had ruled Egypt to hand full power to the first civilian president, Mr. Morsi.
The president's announcement, however, shed no light on the identity of the abductors or the explanation for the release. There was no mention of any arrests or punishment for the kidnapping. The captives -- one soldier and six police officers -- were left in a remote stretch of desert and retrieved by a military helicopter.
Mr. Morsi vowed in a brief speech that "the criminals responsible for such incidents must be held accountable. There's no backing down in that." He added: "Those who have rights must get them, but the law rules everywhere."
But at times he sounded almost plaintive, pleading with the residents of Sinai to disarm. "I call on everybody in Sinai who has weapons to give up their weapons," Mr. Morsi said. "The homeland is bigger than all of us, and weapons should only be with the authorities, with the men of the armed forces and the Ministry of Interior."
He also pledged to uphold public security and asked anyone with grievances to express them peacefully.
In the last three days, the Egyptian Army has deployed dozens of tanks and hundreds of soldiers into the area, and the president and the generals hinted at heavy retaliation if they found the kidnappers. But at other times Mr. Morsi had suggested that he hoped to resolve the matter without confrontation. A statement by his office the day of the abduction promised vigilance "in protecting the souls of all, be they the kidnapped or the kidnappers."
On Wednesday, Mr. Morsi thanked the military and intelligence staff for their work to free the captives, but he also praised "the tribes of Sinai" and "the honorable people of Sinai" for collaborating with the government forces to obtain the release. The Egyptian government may have worked through influential leaders of Sinai clans to persuade the kidnappers to release the officers -- something that would be typical for the region.
"The military intelligence cooperated with the sheiks of the Sinai's tribes since the beginning of the kidnapping, since the first hours of the kidnapping," a military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Mohamed Ali, clarified at a later news conference. But the threat of military action still played a role, he suggested, saying the forces deployed "were not joking around."
The sole demand of the kidnappers was the release of friends or relatives who had been jailed for years for two attacks in Sinai. One was the bombing of a hotel in the resort town of Taba in 2004, which killed 34 people, and the other was an attack on a police station in the town of El Arish in 2011 that killed one police officer, one soldier and three others.
Human rights groups urged the government to use restraint, partly because the kidnappers' grievance might be considered a legitimate question of postrevolutionary transitional justice. Several Egyptian human rights groups noted in a statement this week that the prisoners in question had been sentenced by special state security courts operating without due process under the 30-year state of emergency imposed by former President Hosni Mubarak. The courts relied on evidence obtained through torture and other illegal means, and the prisoners' supporters had petitioned peacefully through official channels for months to appeal the convictions.
But the pressure on Mr. Morsi and the top generals to free the kidnapped officers grew increasingly acute after suggestions that the captors had also used torture against the officers. In an online video that appeared Sunday, seven men blindfolded with their hands behind their heads said they had been tortured, and they begged Mr. Morsi to release those imprisoned for the earlier Sinai attacks.
"We implore you as fast as possible to release the political prisoners from Sinai as fast as possible because we can't take any more, any torture," one captive said.
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.