CAIRO, Egypt, (AP) – A European tour group kidnapped in the Sahara Desert was abruptly freed after a phone call to one of the captors, and all 19 hostages piled into a single car, some clinging to the roof as they drove 200 miles to safety.
The accounts Tuesday by the freed Europeans and their Egyptian guides contradicted reports from Egyptian security officials who described a dramatic rescue involving gun battles between Egyptian forces and the hostages, with state news agency quoting the defense minister that half the kidnappers had been killed.
As their captivity dragged into its 10th night, one of their captors received a phone call, the Egyptian drivers said from the hospital.
“They told all the Egyptians to stand in one line and they cocked their weapons, and at that moment we thought we were dead,” Hassan Abdel Hakim, 45, told The Associated Press. “Suddenly the man told us to take one car and leave — there were 19 of us packed into one car, some on the roof.”
“We left everything, we didn’t even have room for a spare tire. We only had a GPS to go in the right direction until we met the Egyptian special forces around Eight Bells,” he said referring to a defunct airfield in southwestern Egypt.
Michele Barrera, a 71-year-old Italian who was among the group, confirmed the drivers’ account in a telephone interview from his home near the northern Italian city of Turin, describing how they were suddenly released.
“It was nothing dramatic, they just shouted ‘go, go, go!’ and they packed all of us in one car, allowing us to drive away,” he said.
The car started off at 8 p.m. and drove through the night some 200 miles before being found by what were initially hostile Egyptian security forces, said Sherif Farouq Mohammed, a 36-year-old driver.
“They pointed their weapons at us and we were waving our hands trying to tell them that we are the hostages,” he said. “Apparently, they received information that the kidnappers were roaming the desert in white vehicles.”
The five Italians and five Germans, as well as a Romanian living in Germany, were back in their home countries by Tuesday, after being kidnapped together with eight Egyptian guides and drivers on Sept. 19.
Abdel Hakim said the kidnappers were ethnic Africans and they spoke their own language, talking to the Egyptians in broken Arabic. He added they appeared to be Muslims, praying and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
The kidnappers were constantly moving the hostages, suggesting they were trying to evade rescuers.
The ordeal began Sept. 19 during a safari on the Gilf al-Kebir, 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.
Then on Sunday morning, 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.
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.
On Sunday night, the remaining kidnappers then apparently released their hostages after taking all their belongings.
Egyptian authorities on Monday denied that any ransom was paid.