Egypt desert hostages freed after 10-day ordeal

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CAIRO: A group of European tourists and their guides snatched by armed bandits in a remote desert 10 days ago were freed unharmed in a pre-dawn raid by Egyptian special forces on Monday, officials said.

The group of 19 hostages – five Germans, five Italians, a Romanian and eight Egyptian drivers and tour guides – were flown into Cairo aboard an Egyptian military plane and taken for medical checks, state television said.

The freed hostages, apparently in good health, were greeted and handed flowers as they walked unassisted across the tarmac.

Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi said “half of the kidnappers were eliminated in the raid, the official MENA news agency reported.

“Just before dawn two helicopters flew in special forces from the elite Lightning Brigade who freed the hostages, an Egyptian security official told AFP, asking not to be named.

“There was a gunfight during which half the around 35 kidnappers were killed and the rest escaped, he said.

About 150 Egyptian special forces had been sent to Sudan, he said, where Italian and German special forces were also on standby, with about 30 Egyptian special forces carrying out the operation.

The hostages were snatched while on a safari in a lawless area of Egypt’s southwestern desert on Sept. 19.

The kidnappers – whose identities remain unknown – had demanded a ransom but Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said no money had been paid and that Italian special forces had also been involved.

“We cannot yet relate the dynamics (of the release) but we can deny with certainty the payment of any ransom, Frattini said on Italian television from Belgrade.

“It was a most professional operation, and obviously we thank our German friends who worked with us, as well as Egypt and Sudan, he said.

“We should recognize that we obtained this result thanks to the professionalism and effectiveness of our secret services, our special forces, he said, without elaborating.

Frattini told AFP that the Italians were “in a good shape and would be flown from Cairo to Italy.

Their release came after an Egyptian security official said kidnappers had agreed to let their captives go in return for a ransom, in a deal hammered out before a deadly shootout with Sudanese troops.

“The problem was solved. They had agreed to the ransom. It was merely a matter of receiving the hostages, but then this surprise happened, the official told AFP, referring to the shooting.

A Sudanese official told AFP the bandits had moved the hostages to a hideout in Chad, although Ndjamena said it had “noticed nothing on Chadian national territory.

The kidnappers had demanded that Germany take charge of payment of a ?6-million ransom to be handed over to the German wife of the tour organizer, one of those snatched.

Egypt’s independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper had quoted a German negotiator as saying the release had been delayed because the kidnappers were seeking assurances they would not be arrested.

After their kidnap, the group was first moved across the border to Sudan to the remote mountain region of Jebel Uweinat, a plateau that straddles the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan, before the bandits took them into Chad, according to Sudanese officials.

Sudan says the kidnappers belong to a splinter Darfur rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army-Unity (SLA-Unity). An SLA-Unity spokesman denied his group’s involvement, but warned against the use of force.

Kidnappings of foreigners are rare in Egypt, although in 2001 an armed Egyptian held four German tourists hostage for three days in Luxor, before freeing the hostages unharmed.

Bomb strikes aimed at foreigners have been more common, with attacks between 2004 and 2006 killing dozens of people in popular Red Sea resorts. -AFP

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