Sudanese forces today surrounded bandits and their 19 captives, including European tourists, snatched in the Egyptian desert five days ago, but said they had "no intention of storming the area". An Egyptian tourism ministry official said the situation for the 11 foreigners and eight Egyptians was unchanged on Wednesday, after Sudan said it had pinpointed the group and that its forces "are besieging the area".
"They are now in an area of no-man's land between the Sudanese, Libyan and Egyptian border, in the area of Jebel Uweinat," the Sudanese foreign ministry undersecretary Mutrief Sadiq said yesterday. "Their position has been pinpointed and there is coordination between Sudan and Egyptian authorities in this regard [but] there is no intention of storming into the area so as to preserve the lives of the kidnapped persons."
Amid confusion over the kidnappers' identity, an Egyptian security official said yesterday they were "most likely Chadian" after Sudan said they were Egyptian nationals. Sudan has said the group is being held 25 kilometres inside Sudanese territory at Jebel Uweinat, or mountain of small springs, a range that straddles the border area. Several elderly travellers, some in their 70s, are among the group of five Italians, five Germans and a Romanian being held in the desert, where daytime temperatures soar even in September.
Egypt's independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported that five pieces of luggage containing some of the group's belongings had been found scattered just north of the border, inside Egypt, apparently thrown from moving vehicles. The group, along with their Egyptian drivers, guides and a guard, were snatched by masked gunmen on Friday while on a desert safari to view prehistoric art around Gilf el-Kabir in Egypt's remote southwest.
Egypt has said that the group are in good health and have enough food and water. "They have not been badly treated," the Egyptian tourism minister Zuhair Garana said yesterday. The tourism ministry in Egypt, which relies heavily on earnings from foreign visitors, has stressed that "this is an act of banditry not of terrorism". Egypt has also denied reports the kidnappers had threatened to kill the hostages if any attempt were made to rescue them.
Germany, which Egypt says is negotiating with the kidnappers, has not commented on its role beyond saying that it has set up a crisis group. The Egyptian side is being kept updated by the German wife of the Egyptian tour group leader who has been speaking to her husband via satellite telephone. Egypt has sent a team to Sudan to try to secure the release of the hostages, who are reportedly being held for a ransom of up to US$15 million (Dh55m).
Authorities only became aware of the abduction on Monday when the tour group leader phoned his German wife to tell her of the ransom demand. The area of the kidnapping is a desert plateau famous for prehistoric cave paintings, including the "Cave of the Swimmers" featured in the 1996 film "The English Patient". One travel agent said in January a German group was attacked and robbed in the same area. They were abandoned in the desert with nothing but a satellite telephone. It is not known who the attackers were.
Kidnappings of foreigners are extremely rare in Egypt, although in 2001 an armed Egyptian held four German tourists hostage for three days in the Nile resort of Luxor, demanding that his estranged wife bring his two sons back from Germany. He freed the hostages unharmed. Egypt has, however, witnessed a number of deadly attacks against foreigners which have been blamed on al Qa'eda and other militants.