CAIRO, (Reuters) – Egypt is in direct talks with kidnappers who seized 19 hostages including European tourists last week, and negotiators are optimistic about reaching a “good outcome” soon, an Egyptian government source said on Thursday.
“There are negotiations ongoing with the kidnappers now. The Egyptian negotiating team is working to get the hostages released in coordination with its Sudanese and German counterparts,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.
The source said he was not aware of the content of the talks, but that the team members were optimistic that they could “reach a good outcome soon”. He said the Egyptians became involved in the direct talks on Wednesday. The Germans were reported to have been in talks earlier, state media said.
Four or five masked men kidnapped the adventure tourists — five Germans, five Italians, a Romanian and eight Egyptians — last week while they were on a desert safari from the Egyptian oasis of Dakhla to the Gilf al-Kabir plateau in the desert.
The kidnapping, in a remote and thinly policed area near Egypt’s borders with Sudan and Libya, is the first of its kind from Egyptian territory but has features in common with other kidnappings at the western end of the vast north African desert.
Sudan said on Wednesday that the hostages were alive and well, and that Sudanese and Egyptian security forces were watching them from a distance, avoiding a showdown that might result in loss of life.
The kidnappers are holding them just inside Sudanese territory near Jebel Oweinat, which at 1,900 metres (6,200 feet) is the highest peak for hundreds of kilometres (miles).
The kidnappers have threatened to kill the hostages if authorities try to find them by plane, an Egyptian official with strong security ties said earlier in the week, although the country’s tourism minister was quoted on state media denying there was any such threat.
There has been contradictory information about the identity of the kidnappers. Egyptian officials have said the kidnappers could be Sudanese or Chadian, while Sudanese officials have said they believed the hostage takers were Egyptian.
Through phone calls between the owner of the adventure tour company — held captive with the tourists — and his German-born wife in Cairo, the kidnappers have asked for a large ransom.
Egyptian security sources have said they demanded 6 million euros ($8.8 million).
Analysts say the kidnappers do not appear to have political or ideological motives, unlike the militant Islamists who attacked tourist targets in the Nile Valley and the Sinai peninsula in the 1990s and the middle of the current decade. But the incident is an embarrassment to the Egyptian government, which counts preserving law and order in a troubled region as one of its major achievements. Tourism accounts for over 6 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product.
The area from where the hostages were seized contains caves with prehistoric rock paintings dating back some 10,000 years.
Travellers can also visit the nearby Cave of Swimmers, made famous in the 1996 film The English Patient.