Bandits kidnap tourists in Sahara

Masked bandits have kidnapped a group of 19 foreign tourists and Egyptians who were on an expedition in a remote corner of the Sahara Desert in south-western Egypt, officials said on Monday.

“This is an act of banditry, not of terrorism,” the Tourism Ministry said in a statement, adding that those responsible have asked for an undisclosed sum of money as a ransom.

Tourism Minister Zuhair Garana said negotiations were under way to release the group, the official news agency Mena reported.

The ministry said those snatched included five Germans, five Italians, four Egyptians and a Romanian, while Mena said the kidnapped Egyptians were two guides, four drivers, a guard and the owner of the travel company.

Egyptian sources said the kidnappers had asked for between $4-million and $6-million in ransom, although this was not possible to confirm.

The group was kidnapped near Gilf el-Kabir close to the Libyan and Sudanese borders by four Egyptians wearing masks, Mustapha Tawfiq, chief of police in the southern city of Aswan, told state television.

He said he had no more details because of the remoteness of the location, a rugged desert plateau famous for prehistoric cave paintings, including the “Cave of the Swimmers” featured in the 1996 film The English Patient.

There were conflicting reports about when the attack took place. The German Foreign Ministry said its nationals had been missing since Friday.

A tourist guide in southern Egypt said the group was travelling in three or four off-road vehicles near Gilf el-Kabir.

One of the Italians used a satellite telephone to call his wife and tell her they had been kidnapped by five masked men speaking English “with an African accent” very close to the Sudan border, an Egyptian security official said.

In Rome, the Foreign Ministry said five Italians were among those kidnapped and that Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was following the matter.

Frattini, who was informed of the kidnapping while en route to the United States, was in “close contact” with a crisis unit set up at the Foreign Ministry and other ministries involved, the statement said.

Israel denied that any of its nationals were among those snatched. “According to our sources, there were no Israelis,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor said.

Earlier this month, Israel warned its citizens of a “very high” risk of kidnapping or attacks if they travel to Jordan or Egypt, the only two Arab countries that have made peace with the Jewish state.

The warning came just weeks before Jewish New Year holiday, which is marked this year on September 30 and October 1, when thousands of Israelis usually flock to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

Egypt has witnessed a number of deadly attacks in recent years targeting foreigners at major tourist sites, which have been blamed on al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants.

The most recent attacks occurred between 2004 and 2006 in popular Red Sea resorts in the Sinai.
In April 2006, 20 people were killed in bomb blasts in Dahab, 70 were killed in Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005 and 34 people were killed in Taba in October 2004.

In November 1997, 62 people—among them 58 foreign visitors—were killed in an attack on a popular tourist site in the southern Nile resort of Luxor. The attack was claimed by the Islamist Jammaa Islamiyya.

More and more foreign visitors are visiting the remote south-west of Egypt near its borders with Sudan and Libya to see priceless rock art preserved for millennia in one of the most isolated reaches of the Sahara.—Sapa-AFP

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