Diplomats negotiate for siblings’ safe return

Diplomatic efforts were continuing last night in a bid to ensure the safety of four Irish-Egyptian siblings who were among protestors arrested in Cairo at the weekend.

Diplomats negotiate for siblings’ safe return

The three Halawa sisters, Omaima, 21, Fatima, 23, and Soumaia, 27, and their brother, Ibrahim, 17, were met by chance by a Turkish diplomat who confirmed they were together and well, but the Irish embassy in Cairo was still trying to negotiate a face-to-face meeting with them.

The siblings, who are all Irish citizens from Firhouse in Dublin, have been in military custody since hundreds of protestors were cleared out of the el-Fateh mosque in Cairo, where they had taken refuge when violence erupted at a protest against last month’s military coup on Friday.

They were due to be brought before a state prosecutor yesterday for official charges to be laid against them, but the outcome of any such proceedings remained unclear last night.

Friends and supporters of the siblings, who are the children of Imam Hussein Halawa, the senior cleric at the country’s largest mosque, the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, Dublin, protested outside the Egyptian embassy yesterday to demand the siblings’ release. A staff member was jostled and had to be escorted inside by gardaí as feelings ran high among the crowd of several dozen, who accused the Egyptian military behind the coup of kidnapping the family.

The Halawas, who were in Egypt on their annual summer holiday, were taking part in a protest calling for the return of ousted president Mohamed Morsi when they were caught up in the military’s crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrations.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Joe Costello, said the Irish embassy was extremely busy negotiating with the Egyptian authorities on the family’s behalf, but he warned everything was “in flux”, adding that “it’s changing from moment to moment”.

“We don’t know what their circumstances are,” said Mr Costello. “We don’t know what the attitude of the authorities is. They have not informed us.”

The department is warning against all travel to Egypt, and tour operators Thomas Cook and Falcon yesterday suspended trips to the Sharm el Sheikh resort, which had previously been considered safe, but is now under a 7pm curfew.

Between them, the companies have around 400 Irish visitors in the area, who will be brought home on their scheduled flights as their holidays come to an end, but no holidaymakers will be carried there for the next few weeks, at least.

Pat Dawson, chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents Association, said the decision was taken in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s an hour-by-hour situation and nobody knows what’s going to happen next,” said Mr Dawson. “The last thing you want is a group of Irish holidaymakers caught in the unrest.”

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