As the exact details of their rescue were still emerging, 11 foreign tourists and eight Egyptians walked free Monday afternoon following a 10-day hostage drama that took them from remotest Egypt, into Sudan, and possibly to Libya.
While the kidnappers' identities have yet to be released, at least six of them appear to have been killed in a raid that possibly involved Egyptian, Sudanese, and European forces. All of the abductees appeared to be in good health.
The rescue ends an ordeal that highlights new risks for adventure tourists in the western Egyptian desert due to the instability in neighboring Chad and Sudan.
"There does not seem to be a lot of information on organized crime in the region, although it is on the rise," says Abdul Moneim al-Said, head of the Egyptian al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
He says that the area is ripe for such kinds of crimes, given the ongoing conflicts, like the one in Darfur.
"It is a brand of violence that is similar to the on-going piracy in the horn of Africa and the Red Sea, and the increasing human trafficking. The desert in this area is wide. It's a wasteland that is convenient for such groups to organize themselves and the current failing states feed into those kinds of crimes," he says.
"This is the first time something like this has happened in the western desert in the past 25 years," says Hani Zaki, director of safari trips at EMCO Travel, one of the largest travel agencies in Egypt. "I do not take it as an indication of the desert not being safe. All trips organized here have security coverage represented in communication devices and security guides, and we usually use the Bedouin local communities for additional security."
Official sources so far have not given many specifics on the nature of the operation, but have acknowledged the use of force.
The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, told La Stampa newspaper that "there was no planned raid." But rather, he said, an unspecified "meeting at a checkpoint" where gunshots erupted, presumably accidentally.
Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmad Aboul Gheit, confirmed that the kidnapped group was released through an operation and that half of the kidnappers were killed in a mission that took place before dawn on Monday. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the Egyptian foreign minister.]
Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga, who keeps ties with Italian security services, told Italian media that the hostages were freed in a military move carried out by Italian special forces, possibly with the help of German and Egyptian intelligence services.
On Sept. 19, kidnappers seized five Italians, five Germans, one Romanian, and eight Egyptians during a safari trip in a convoy of four jeeps at an oasis in the Egyptian western desert. The Egyptians were affiliated to the Egyptian tourism agency that arranged the trip and included the company's owner, four drivers, and two tourist guides. A tourism police agent was also among the kidnapped.
The abductors are believed to have then driven the group to border areas that included Sudan, Libya, and Chad, all of which are accessible from all three countries by four-wheel drive vehicles. News reports said that kidnappers demanded a $15 million ransom and that the German authorities were negotiating with them.
Earlier Sunday, the Sudanese Army announced the killing of six kidnappers and the arrest of two. It said that the abductors belonged to one of Darfur's armed militias, an allegation that was denounced by major groups of combatants in the Sudanese conflict-torn area.
But movement in these particular areas suggests geographic knowledge that Darfuri tribesmen are best at mastering. However, nothing seems to confirm that the kidnapping was politically motivated.
The Egyptian government called the kidnappers "gangsters" without referring to their citizenship.
Egypt has witnessed a string of threats to its tourism endeavors, manifested in a series of bombings once a year from 2004 to 2006 in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt's eastern gate. Unrest also prevailed during the 1990s, with major explosions taking place in other tourist hubs such as the southern historic city of Luxor. A government crackdown on Islamic militant groups managed to curb their mounting operations in the 1990s.