CAIRO // Masked gunmen have abducted 19 people, including 11 foreign tourists, in southern Egypt and are holding them hostage, amid conflicting reports about whether ransom negotiations were underway with the kidnappers, who Egyptian officials insist were "bandits", not "terrorists". The group were taken captive by the gunmen and had been taken outside the country, Zoheir Garana, Egypt's tourism minister, said yesterday. "They have been kidnapped and they have been moved outside the Egyptian borders by four criminals who have kidnapped them," Mr Garana said. The tourism ministry said the kidnapping happened on Friday but authorities only became aware when the tour company owner, who is among the missing, used a satellite telephone to call his wife and tell her of a ransom demand. Security sources said the kidnappers were asking for ?6 million (Dh32.4m) to free the hostages. "According to the information we have the hostages are in Sudanese territory but we don't know where," Mr Garana told Agence France-Presse. Sudanese rebel groups have denied they are holding the tourists. The group, believed to consist of five German nationals, five Italians and one Romanian, as well eight Egyptians, were on a desert safari in el Wadi el Gedid, deep into the country's vast, rugged and mostly uninhabited western desert near the Sudanese-Egyptian borders when they were kidnapped, said Magdy Rady, an Egyptian government spokesman. The eight Egyptians were believed to be tour guides and security border guards. Mr Garana described the kidnapping as the act of "bandits" as opposed to "terrorists" and said the kidnappers had asked for a ransom. Talks were under way to pay the ransom, he was initially quoted as saying by the official Mena news agency. However, later in the day, Mena issued another statement by Mr Garana denying the government was in talks with the captors. Mr Rady, the government spokesman, said Egyptian and Sudanese authorities were co-ordinating efforts. "There is no direct contact with the kidnappers. All the contact is indirect through the tourist company", Mr Rady said. The group had been on a Safari trip that started on Sept 16 and was supposed to end on Saturday in el Galf el Kebir, which borders Libya, Sudan and Chad. The kidnapping comes days after Israel warned its citizens of a possible terrorist attack in Egypt. Egypt last night insisted the kidnappers were not Egyptians, but from bordering African countries. Speaking to Egyptian television, Mr Garana denied "any official contacts with the kidnappers". "The Egyptian government doesn't negotiate but the security services are trying to locate the hostages. "The contacts are with the wife of the agency owner, they're telling her their demands and security services are in contact with her," he said. Ahmed Rizq, assistant foreign minister for consular affairs, said his ministry was co-ordinating efforts with the countries of the hostages. Attacks on tourists is a sensitive issue for Egypt, harking back to the mid-1990s when the regime was battling militants who targeted mainly tourists, officials, police officers and Coptic Christians. Most of the attacks occurred in Cairo and southern Egypt. The last major Nile valley attack, blamed on militants, claimed the lives of 58 foreign tourists in the southern temple city of Luxor in 1997. Since 2004 there have been a string of attacks on the beach resorts of the Sinai peninsula, which are popular with both tourists and Egyptians. Three major bombings - in Taba in 2004, Sharm el Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006 - killed 121 people and were blamed on disgruntled Bedouins living in Sinai. These latest kidnappings come at a bad time for Egypt as the country prepares for the autumn and winter tourism seasons, which are concentrated in southern Egypt, where the tourists were abducted. Tourism is a major industry in Egypt and is essential to the country's economy - about 8.6 million tourists visited the country in 2007. Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies, said he did not believe "terrorists" were behind the kidnapping. "Why would militants or terrorists do such an act in a deserted place like this? Most probably it is just criminals who want money," Mr Rashwan said. "However, regardless of whether this crime has political or criminal motives, its has political and economic consequences, revealing a kind of instability in the country which is not attractive to tourists or investors. "The news of the kidnapping is bringing Egypt to news headlines with bad news, which is bad news for Egypt." Egypt has denied there are any al Qa'eda cells operating in its territory. Ayman el Zawahri, al Qa'eda's number two, is Egyptian, and he dedicated his last audio tape, posted on the internet, a few days ago to talking about the rockslide that killed more than 100 poor Egyptians two weeks ago. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by AFP
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