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Tourists unharmed after Egypt kidnapping ordeal

CAIRO (Reuters) - Eleven European tourists and eight Egyptians abducted in the Egyptian desert have been freed unharmed in an operation in which some of their kidnappers were killed, Egyptian officials said on Monday.

The freed hostages arrived in Cairo aboard an Egyptian military plane, smiling, some holding bouquets of flowers, to be greeted by Egyptian military and government officials and foreign diplomats.

The 19 were freed in what Egyptian media called a “rescue and recovery operation,” although officials gave scant and contradictory details about how authorities secured the release or how the hostage-takers were killed.

The hostages’ 10-day ordeal had embarrassed Egypt which depends on tourism for 6 percent of its gross domestic product.

“They have all arrived safely. No ransom was paid from any of the hostage countries,” Tourism Minister Zoheir Garrana told reporters. “We will coordinate with security agencies to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Masked gunmen seized the five Germans, five Italians, one Romanian and eight Egyptians on September 19 from a desert safari near Egypt’s borders with Sudan and Libya, then whisked them into Sudan and demanded a multi-million-dollar ransom.

Military helicopters flew the freed hostages to a Cairo hospital for checks. Officials handed them mobile phones to call their families.

“They seemed exhausted but said there was no ill treatment,” said Omaima el-Husseini, a tourism ministry spokeswoman.

The Egyptian government and political analysts have said the kidnappers did not appear to have political motives. Tour operators say acts of banditry in the area from which the hostages were snatched have been on the rise.

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One of the freed Egyptian hostages, Sherif Abdel-Moneim, said the kidnappers had treated them well but abandoned the group at dawn on Monday “and moments later security forces came and rescued us.” He identified his captors as 12 to 17 gunmen who spoke broken Arabic.

“They told us: ‘We won’t do anything to you. Once we get the ransom from your governments, you will walk free’,” Abdel-Moneim told reporters.

Sudan on Sunday said it had killed six hostage-takers and arrested two in a gunbattle near the Egyptian and Libyan border.

Ali Youssef Ahmed, head of protocol in the Sudanese foreign ministry, said two men captured on Sunday had told security forces the kidnappers planned to head to Egypt, and that Sudanese forces tried to cut them off.

By that time, the kidnappers had abandoned the hostages. “They left them somewhere and went away,” he told Reuters.

An Egyptian security source speaking on customary condition of anonymity said Egyptian forces had ambushed the kidnappers, and that 150 people had taken part in the operation.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italian special forces took part in securing the hostages’ release, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

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“It was an operation of excellent professionalism. We have to obviously thank our German friends who worked with us, Egypt as well as Sudan,” Frattini told Italian television.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin: “I am not going to release any information at this time. Let’s wait for the safe return (to Germany) of the hostages.”

Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said half the kidnappers had been “liquidated,” state news agency MENA said without giving details.

Sudan has blamed the kidnapping on a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), a Darfur rebel group, without specifying which faction. Many rebels operate under that name.

The remote region where the hostages were seized has cave paintings thought to be about 10,000 years old. It is accessible by desert vehicle from the conflict zones of Darfur and eastern Chad.

Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine, Cynthia Johnston and Mohamed Abdellah in Cairo, Andrew Heavens in Khartoum, Stephen Brown in Rome, Klaus-Peter Senger in Berlin; Writing by Alaa Shahine and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Janet Lawrence