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Long Forgotten, Tribes Become Locked in Battle Over Borders

August 11, 1995 GMT

ABU RAMAD, Egypt (AP) _ Brandishing swords and beating drums, the tribesmen of the arid Red Sea coast proclaim their heart-felt devotion to Egypt _ with pronounced Sudanese accents.

``Oh beloved Egypt! We are your youth!″ the men in white gowns, turbans and dark vests shout, dancing in a circle.

But like their accents, their loosely wrapped white turbans and the sing-song rhythm of their chants are typically Sudanese.

Neglected for decades, the 20,000-odd Red Sea tribesmen are caught in a simmering battle for control between Egypt and neighboring Sudan.

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Both Arab countries claim Halaib, a 7,200-square-mile triangle of acacia trees, jagged mountains and flat, sandy coast along the Sudanese border. But while Sudan calls the desolate land its own, Egypt controls it and is making a concerted effort to win over the tribesmen who live there.

Along the way, it also is trying to convince the inhabitants, many of whom roam back and forth across the border, that they are indeed Egyptian.

It’s a tough sell. Despite the speeches and crowds staged for journalists taken on a recent tour of Halaib, the government acknowledges it has a long way to go.

Most inhabitants couldn’t care less who is in charge.

``They are born in the place so they identify with the place,″ said Abdel-Salaam el-Shishtawi, the Egyptian deputy chairman of Shalatin, the main city in the Halaib triangle. ``They identify with their tribe, but they have an Egyptian identity card, an Egyptian birth certificate and an Egyptian marriage certificate.″

Since independence, Arab states have sought to settle their nomadic tribes _ mainly Bedouins _ who habitually wandered across ill-defined borders that came into being only within the last century. Most still have little understanding of the concept of nationality.

In Halaib, people think of themselves as of the Bishariyya or Ababda tribes. Their relatives live to the south in Sudan or north along the Nile in Egypt, and their prized camels are traded across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

The border _ demarcated along the 22nd parallel _ is barely more than an imaginary line across the desert. The dispute over the area is decades old, warming up now and then over possible oil in the region or, as it did last month, over Egypt’s claim that Sudan was behind a June 26 attempt on President Hosni Mubarak’s life.

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So far, the roads, schools, medical clinics and houses built by Egypt seem to have done little to instill a sense of loyalty.

In Abu Ramad, about an hour’s drive from the Sudanese border, a group of women stand outside a school taken over by Egypt in 1993 and tries to explain their feelings. The land is Egypt, they say. But their people are from Halaib.

``This is where our grandfathers are from and that’s why we’re here,″ says Fatma Hamid, standing among a group of women wearing the loose, brightly colored shawls common among Sudanese women. ``Anyone that comes from our tribe in Sudan, we welcome them.″

Across the street, among newly built houses the color of the sandy plain, a group of shepherds and farmers sit in the shade of a truck that offers only a little half-hearted relief from temperatures soaring well past 100 degrees.

Among them is Qarar Hassan, a 25-year-old fisherman. Asked about threats traded by Egypt and Sudan over his home, he gives a tired, disinterested look.

Hassan has heard of the attempt on Mubarak’s life and Egypt’s charges against Sudan, but says these are only ``political things.″

``They’re all the same to us,″ Hassan says of Egypt and Sudan, as other men and boys seated on a straw mat nod in agreement.

As for his identity, he says simply: ``We belong to the land.″