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19 hostages liberated in security operation

Egypt says captives were freed in Chadian territory, while Sudan says they were rescued after they crossed into Egypt independently.

CAIRO // Eleven European tourists and their eight Egyptian guides held hostage for over a week by bandits were freed yesterday in a raid by security forces and greeted with bouquets of white, yellow and orange flowers as they arrived back in Cairo.

The 19 were met by Egypt's tourism and assistant defence minister as they disembarked from a military plane at a military base east of the capital. All of the captives, who included five Germans, five Italians, a Romanian and eight Egyptian guides and drivers, were whisked away into two helicopters to the Maadi military hospital for a check-up, state TV said. None appeared to be physically hurt after the 10-day ordeal that took them from Egypt to Sudan and possibly Chad. Earlier reports said they had also been taken to Libya, but Libya has denied this.

Egyptian officials were quoted by the official Mena news agency as saying the group was freed by Egyptian special forces and Sudanese troops, and that no ransom had been paid. The agency also quoted Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister, as telling Hosni Mubarak, the president, that "half of the kidnappers were killed" in the raid. Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister, told Sky TG24 news channel that Sudan and Egypt carried out "a highly professional operation" with the "intervention of Italian intelligence and experts from the special forces".

The hostages were seized by masked gunmen on Sept 19 while on a desert safari in remote southwestern Egypt, dealing an embarrassing blow to Cairo, which depends on tourism for over six per cent of its gross domestic product. Initial reports said the tourists had been taken to Sudan, and then Libya, and that they were calling for a ?6 million ransom. The hunt for the hostages and their captors finally turned when Sudanese troops came across some of the kidnappers on Sunday in south-western Sudan as they searched for food and petrol, the Egyptian security official told Mena. Six kidnappers were killed in that fight, and two were captured. The captured two told the authorities where the rest of the kidnappers and their captives were hiding, the official said.

The Sudanese and Egyptian militaries, using two helicopters, then launched the assault that freed the captives, two security officials said. One said there was an exchange of fire and that the hostages were freed inside Chadian territory, but there was no confirmation of where exactly the operation took place. Many of the borders in the desert region are unmarked and easily crossed. Sudan, however, described a different situation.

Ali Youssef Ahmed, head of protocol in the Sudanese foreign ministry, said the two men captured on Sunday had told security forces the kidnappers planned to head to Egypt, and that Sudanese forces tried to cut off the remaining kidnappers near the border. But by that time, the kidnappers had abandoned the hostages, who then crossed into Egypt independently before being rescued, Mr Ahmed said. In a further twist, a Sudanese official told Agence France-Presse the bandits had moved the hostages to a hideout in Chad, although the Chadian government said it had "noticed nothing on Chadian national territory".

A Sudanese army spokesman also said his forces were not involved in the release. "We had nothing to do with the hostages; we were only dealing with the kidnappers who have been killed," Al Sawarmi al Islam Khaled told AFP. It was not known what nationality the kidnappers were, but they were believed to be armed desert tribesmen. Sudan says the kidnappers belong to a splinter Darfur rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army-Unity (SLA-Unity). An SLA-Unity spokesman had denied his group's involvement.

Tour operators working in Egypt's Western Desert have reported several robberies of tourists in the area by heavily armed gunmen in SUVs and expressed fears the violence could be a spillover from the conflicts in eastern Chad and Sudan's war-torn Darfur. The tour group was abducted while visiting the Gilf al Kebir, a desert plateau famous for its prehistoric cave paintings. It is one of the most remote, little-visited sites in Egypt, lying in the country's far south-western corner near the Sudanese and Libyan borders.

nmagd@thenational.ae

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