CAIRO/KHARTOUM, (Reuters) – Authorities know the whereabouts of kidnappers who seized 19 hostages in the Egyptian desert, but have no plans for any rescue operation that could harm the captives, a Sudanese Foreign Ministry official said on Tuesday.
Masked kidnappers snatched the hostages — five Italians, five Germans, a Romanian and eight Egyptians — from a desert safari near Egypt’s southern border with Sudan and Libya on Friday and were thought to have whisked them out of Egypt.
The kidnappers have threatened to kill the hostages if authorities try to find them by plane, an Egyptian official with strong ties to security agencies said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But Egypt’s tourism minister denied there was any such threat, state news agency MENA reported.
“The location of the kidnappers has been pinpointed… It’s no-man’s land between the Sudan, Libya and Egypt borders,” said Mutrif Siddig, Sudanese undersecretary of foreign affairs. “We are not going to have an operation that harms the hostages,” he added, noting Khartoum was coordinating with Egyptian authorities on the case.
The kidnapping of foreign tourists was the first of its kind in Egypt, and posed a new challenge to the security-conscious government in a country that depends on foreign tourism for 6 percent of the national economy.
Islamic militants hit the country’s tourist industry in the 1990s and again in the mid-2000s with bomb and gun attacks that killed hundreds of people and weighed heavily on tourism.
Egypt’s state-owned al-Ahram newspaper on Tuesday quoted Tourism Minister Zoheir Garrana as saying the hostages were all in good health, and that German authorities were in talks with the kidnappers over a ransom.
Security sources said the kidnappers were demanding 6 million euros ($8.8 million) to free the hostages, and said there was no sign militant Islamists were involved.
Attacks on tourists in the Nile Valley and the nearby deserts have been rare in recent years, though a series of bombings targeted tourists in the Sinai Peninsula between 2004 and 2006. The Egyptian government blamed the Sinai attacks on Bedouin with militant views.
Militant Islamists had earlier launched a series of attacks on tourists in the Nile Valley in the 1990s. But Guido Steinberg, a political scientist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said the kidnapping was a different phenomenon.
“I think links drawn to the attacks of Luxor (in the Nile Valley in 1997) or on the Sinai Peninsula miss the point. We rather have to deal with a phenomenon affecting the Saharan desert overall,” Steinberg said.
“It’s hard to differentiate between politics and crime in this region,” he added. The vast desert area is rife with the smuggling of people, drugs and weapons, and foreign tourists “are a particularly expensive good”, he said.
Steinberg said the kidnapping of two Austrians in Tunisia earlier this year was analogous to Friday’s kidnapping and showed that kidnapping tourists and taking them to safe areas for negotiations was an attractive prospect.
Garrana told Egyptian television on Monday the kidnappers were “most likely” Sudanese. But security sources said they could also be Egyptians or citizens of nearby Chad, where both Sudanese and Chadian rebels operate.
The desert area where the borders of Egypt, Sudan and Libya meet is thinly policed and is close to conflicts in Darfur in western Sudan and in eastern Chad.
Gilf al-Kebir, where the tourists were heading, attracts adventure travellers with dramatic landscapes including a massive crater and the Cave of Swimmers, whose prehistoric paintings won fame through the 1996 film “The English Patient”.