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Kidnappers seize foreign tourists in Egypt

(Adds Italian president)

CAIRO, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Masked kidnappers have seized 19 hostages including Western tourists on safari in a remote desert border area of Egypt and whisked them over the frontier into Sudan, Egyptian officials said on Monday.

The kidnapping was the first of its kind in Egypt in living memory, although Islamic militants have hit the country's tourist industry in recent decades with bomb and gun attacks that have killed hundreds.

"They have been kidnapped and they have been moved outside the Egyptian borders by four criminals who have kidnapped them," Tourism Minister Zoheir Garrana told Reuters. "This is a gang act (by) masked men."

Security sources said the kidnappers were asking for 6 million euros ($8.8 million) to free the hostages, identified as five Italians, five Germans, a Romanian and eight Egyptians. They said there was no sign militant Islamists were involved.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was following the situation with "great concern", his office said in a statement.

Egypt's army scoured the border area on Monday for the tourists, who were believed to have been seized on Friday from a safari near where the borders of Egypt, Sudan and Libya meet.

The state-run Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that the group had spent the night of Sept. 16 in a hotel in Dakhla oasis in Egypt's Western Desert before heading out toward the Gilf al-Kebir national reserve. They had been due to reach another oasis on Saturday to end their tour, but never made it.

Garrana said authorities learned of the kidnapping after a tour operator called his German wife and told her he was being held hostage with the group. Egyptian state television said those held included an Egyptian border guard officer.

Gilf al-Kebir, the area where the tourists were seized, attracts adventure travellers with bleak desert scenes including a massive crater and the Cave of Swimmers, whose prehistoric paintings were made famous by the 1996 film "The English Patient".

KIDNAPPERS "LIKELY SUDANESE"

Garrana told Egyptian television the kidnappers were "most likely" Sudanese. He later told Al Jazeera television that the area from which the kidnapped tour operator called his wife indicated that the hostages had been taken to Sudan.

One security source said the kidnappers may alternatively be citizens of nearby Chad, where both Sudanese and Chadian rebels operate. Another source said the kidnappers could be Egyptian.

Garrana said there were talks between the kidnappers and the wife of the tour operator, and that the kidnappers were asking the German government to pay a ransom. He said the Egyptian government was not in direct contact with the kidnappers.

Attacks on tourists in Egypt's Nile Valley and the deserts around it have been rare in recent years, although a series of bombings targeted tourists in resorts in the Sinai Peninsula between 2004 and 2006. Egypt blamed the Sinai attacks on Bedouin with militant views.

Those attacks weighed on Egypt's tourism industry, although it has since recovered with nearly 10 million tourists visiting Egypt in the 2006-2007 fiscal year.

Garrana downplayed the risks to tourists in Egypt, saying it was a "safe country and we take care of our clients".

Mohamed Abu Basha, an economist at Egyptian investment bank EFG-Hermes, said the kidnapping could have a "slight short-term impact" on tourism so long as it did not turn out to be a politically motivated attack.

Militant Islamists launched a series of attacks on tourists in the Nile Valley in the 1990s. But the Gama'a al-Islamiya, or Islamic Group, halted attacks amid popular uproar after six of its members slaughtered dozens of foreign tourists at Queen Hatshepsut's temple in the southern town of Luxor in 1997.

Al Qaeda often condemns Egypt's government as a corrupt U.S. puppet and call for its overthrow. Deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri said in a message this month it was among governments "imposed by the Crusader-Zionist campaign (on Islam)". (Additional reporting by Cynthia Johnston, Jonathan Wright, Mohamed Abdellah, Aziz el-Kaissouni and Alastair Sharp; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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