Egypt: Mystery deepens over killing of Italian student

It was a brutal killing that became an international incident: An Italian graduate student disappeared from the streets of the Egyptian capital in January and his body discovered days later dumped by a roadside, tortured to death.

The death of Guilio Regeni quickly poisoned ties between Egypt and Italy, where suspicions were high that Egyptian police, who have long been accused of using torture and secret detentions, snatched the 28-year-old and killed him. Egyptian officials - as high up as the president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in a national address - have denied any police role, but in the months since the slayings, the Italian government has hiked the pressure for answers.

Then last month came a surprise twist. Egyptian police announced they had killed a gang of five Egyptian men they said specialised in kidnapping and robbing foreigners and, while searching the gang leader's sister's home, came upon Regeni's passport. Government media proclaimed that Regeni's killers had been found.

The claim was immediately dismissed by Italian officials as not credible, with some Italian media calling it an outright cover-up. Even the editor-in-chief of Egypt's top government newspaper, Al-Ahram, wrote that Egyptian authorities had to get serious about uncovering the truth and that such "naive stories" about Regeni's death were only hurting the country.

Now accounts from witnesses and family members interviewed by AP raise further questions about the official version of the March 24 shooting in a wealthy suburban enclave outside Cairo.

Prevent demonstrations

The Interior Ministry said security forces hunting for the gang stopped their minibus and the men opened fire on them, prompting a gunbattle in which all five were killed.

But witnesses say the men were unarmed and tried to flee as police fired on them and that afterward police confiscated footage from security cameras near the scene. The men's relatives say they were house painters merely heading to a job in the suburb, Tagammu al-Khamis, when they were killed.

The shooting adds a new layer to the mystery surrounding Regeni's slaying. The Italian PhD student vanished after leaving his apartment on January 25, the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. It was a tense day: Police were out in force to prevent demonstrations commemorating the day and in the preceding days dozens of activists had been arrested.

Regeni had been researching the labour movement, a sensitive subject in Egypt since labour activists are frequently protest organisers and security agents are known to monitor activities by foreign researchers.

The Interior Ministry has denied that police detained Regeni, and authorities have offered various possible scenarios for his death, including a personal dispute or a robbery. The day Regeni's body was found a top police official said he died in a car accident, until investigators reported the extensive signs of torture, including cigarette burns, broken bones and bruises from beatings.
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