- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2008

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Egyptian and Sudanese troops, backed by European commandos, swooped down in helicopters Monday to rescue a tour group that had been kidnapped in Egypt and taken on a 10-day dash across the Sahara to the frontier of Chad.

Freedom for the 11 European tourists and eight Egyptian guides came hours after Sudanese troops killed six of the abductors and captured two who revealed where the remaining gunmen were holding their captives.

Some Egyptian officials spoke privately of a gunbattle with the kidnappers that killed several of the gunmen, but it was unclear if they were talking about the rescue operation in a barren wilderness just inside Chad or the gunbattle on Sunday.

Egyptian officials released no details of the rescue except to say troops used helicopters to bring out the prisoners.

The five Germans, five Italians and a Romanian, along with eight Egyptian drivers and guides, arrived in Cairo on a military plane later Monday, smiling as they walked across the tarmac to be greeted with bouquets of flowers.

They were taken to a military hospital for checkups, but doctors said none had been hurt.

The ordeal began Sept. 19 during a safari on the Gilf al-Kabir, a desert plateau renowned for prehistoric cave art in a remote corner of southwestern Egypt, near the Libyan and Sudanese borders. While the group was camping, heavily armed gunmen in SUVs seized them and took them across the unguarded border into Sudan.

The abduction the first of its kind involving tourists in Egypt was an embarrassment to the Egyptian government, which depends on tourism as the country’s biggest foreign currency earner. Tour companies feared it was a sign that chaos in violence-torn eastern Chad and Sudan’s Darfur region was spilling over into the isolated corner of Egypt.

The kidnappers, who officials said were Sudanese and Chadian tribesmen, reportedly demanded up to $15 million in ransom and were negotiating with German officials by satellite phone. At the same time, Egyptian and Sudanese troops working with German and Italian intelligence experts combed the desert looking for them.

At one point, Sudanese soldiers spotted the group near Oweinat Mountain, in northwestern Sudan, then reported they had crossed into Libya. But Libya denied the kidnappers and their prisoners had entered its territory, and for several days their whereabouts were unknown.

Then on Sunday night, Sudanese troops encountered eight of the kidnappers, apparently sent to get fuel and food. In a running gunbattle, six of the kidnappers were killed and two captured, Egyptian and Sudanese officials said.

“Our search efforts were combing the Sudanese-Libyan border and were surprised to see a Land Rover with the tourist company’s logo on it,” Ibrahim Ezz Eldin Ibrahim, deputy head of Sudanese intelligence, told al-Jazeera Television. “There was then a chase and an exchange of fire, where we killed six of the kidnappers and caught two of them.”

The two kidnappers told authorities the remainder of the gunmen and their captives were holed up in Tabat Shajara in Chad, just across the border with Sudan, some 250 miles southwest of the Gilf al-Kebir, an Egyptian security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Sudanese troops and an Egyptian commando team, using two helicopters, launched a rescue mission early Monday, two Egyptian security officials said, also demanding anonymity to discuss the operation. The officials said there was a gunfight in which up to six kidnappers died.

A German special police unit and military commandos were also involved, German Interior and Defense Ministry officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, suggested Italian special operations troops also participated. The Egyptian officials said the Germans and Italians were present but did not participate in the fighting.

Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi said “half the kidnappers” were killed in the rescue operation, according to the state news agency MENA, but the report did not give a precise number or give details on the rescue. An Egyptian security official said there were 18 kidnappers in all.

“Our compatriots and the other hostages in Egypt have been freed,” Frattini was quoted as saying by Italy’s ANSA news agency. “It is the result of international cooperation for which we have to be really grateful to the authorities of other countries that have been working with us.”

Asked if a ransom had been paid, Frattini said, “We can certainly deny this.”

At the Cairo military hospital, the tourists were seen joking with diplomats, visibly relieved. Reporters were barred from approaching them.

The five Italians, two of whom were in their 70s, left later Monday night on a military flight to Rome, and the remainder were expected to leave soon.

Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Youssef said the kidnappers were Sudanese and Chadians and accused them of having ties to ethnic African rebels in Darfur that the Sudanese government has been battling since early 2003. Darfur rebel groups have denied any involvement in the abduction.

Darfur and eastern Chad have become hotbeds of armed groups notorious for banditry and attacks on vehicles. International aid groups have had to limit their movements because of repeated carjackings and kidnappings of drivers.

Eastern Chad and Darfur lie about 200 to 250 miles from the Gilf al-Kebir, but the desolate terrain is largely unguarded. Egyptian tour guides have reported several armed robberies of tourists near the Gilf over the past year, raising fears that such bandits have been drawn to the vulnerable and relatively well-off Westerners visiting the site.

Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Mohamed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan, contributed to this report.

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