Egypt approves transfer of islands to Saudi Arabia

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Egyptian journalists attend a demonstration at the Syndicate of Journalists in Cairo on June 13, 2017 after a controversial agreement for Egypt to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia passed in Parliament.

CAIRO - Egypt's parliament approved on Wednesday a controversial maritime agreement with Saudi Arabia that transferred two Red Sea islands to the kingdom.

The deal, which was being challenged in court, had sparked rare protests in the country, with the opposition accusing the government of selling Egyptian territory to its Saudi benefactors.

The vote came after days of heated debate in Parliament, with opponents even interrupting one committee session with chanting.

Courts had initially struck down the agreement, signed in April 2016, but a year later another court upheld it.

Lawyers were now challenging the deal before the constitutional court.

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The accord sparked rare protests in Egypt last year, with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi accused of having traded the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for Saudi largesse.

The government said the islands were Saudi to begin with, but were leased to Egypt in the 1950s.

Opponents of the agreement insisted that Tiran and Sanafir were Egyptian.

On Tuesday evening, dozens of journalists protested against the agreement in central Cairo, before being dispersed by police, journalists' union official Gamal Abdel Rehim said.

Several were briefly arrested before being released, but "three reporters are still detained, and contacts are being made with the interior ministry to get them released," he said.