CAIRO (Reuters) - Masked kidnappers have taken 19 people hostage, including Western tourists on safari in a remote desert border area of Egypt, and whisked them over the frontier into Sudan, Egyptian officials said on Monday.
The kidnapping was the first of its kind in Egypt in living memory, though Islamic militants have hit the country's tourist industry in recent decades with bomb and gun attacks that have killed hundreds.
Security sources said the kidnappers were demanding 6 million euros ($8.8 million) to free the hostages, identified as five Italians, five Germans, a Romanian and eight Egyptians. They said there was no sign militant Islamists were involved.
"They have been kidnapped and they have been moved outside the Egyptian borders by four criminals who have kidnapped them," Tourism Minister Zoheir Garrana told Reuters. "This is a gang act (by) masked men."
There were contradictory reports about the fate of the hostages. Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said at the United Nations that the tourists had been freed and were safe and sound, but officials later said that was not the case.
"It is premature to say they are released. The negotiations are still continuing," cabinet spokesman Magdy Radi told Reuters. Egypt's state news agency MENA also said talks were still under way, citing an unnamed official.
MENA reported that the tourists had spent the night of September 16 in a hotel in Dakhla oasis in Egypt's Western Desert before heading out toward the Gilf al-Kebir national reserve. They had been due to reach another oasis on Saturday to end their tour, but never made it.
Garrana said authorities learned of the kidnapping after a tour operator called his German wife and told her he was being held hostage. Egyptian television said those held included an Egyptian border guard officer.
Security sources said there was no sign militant Islamists were involved in the kidnapping.
KIDNAPPERS "LIKELY SUDANESE"
Garrana told Egyptian television the kidnappers were "most likely" Sudanese. He later told Al Jazeera television that the area from which the kidnapped tour operator called his wife indicated that the hostages had been taken to Sudan.
One security source said the kidnappers may alternatively be citizens of nearby Chad, where both Sudanese and Chadian rebels operate. Another source said the kidnappers could be Egyptian.
Gilf al-Kebir, where the tourists were seized, attracts adventure travelers with bleak scenes including a massive crater and the Cave of Swimmers, whose prehistoric paintings were made famous by the 1996 film "The English Patient."
Garrana said the kidnappers had been in contact with the wife of the tour operator and had asked the German government to pay a ransom. He had said the Egyptian government was not in direct contact with the kidnappers.
Attacks on tourists in Egypt's Nile Valley and the deserts around it have been rare in recent years, though a series of bombings targeted tourists in resorts in the Sinai Peninsula between 2004 and 2006. Egypt blamed the Sinai attacks on Bedouin with militant views.
Those attacks depressed Egypt's tourism industry, but it has since recovered and nearly 10 million tourists visited Egypt in the 2006-2007 fiscal year.
Garrana played down the risks to tourists in Egypt, saying it was a "safe country and we take care of our clients."
Mohamed Abu Basha, an economist at Egyptian investment bank EFG-Hermes, said the impact on tourism could be slight and short term, as long as the attack did not turn out to be politically motivated.
Militant Islamists launched a series of attacks on tourists in the Nile Valley in the 1990s. But the Gama'a al-Islamiya, or Islamic Group, halted attacks amid popular uproar after six of its members slaughtered dozens of foreign tourists at Queen Hatshepsut's temple in the southern town of Luxor in 1997.
Al Qaeda often condemns Egypt's government as a corrupt U.S. puppet and calls for its overthrow. Deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri said in a message this month it was among governments "imposed by the Crusader-Zionist campaign (on Islam)."
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Wright, Mohamed Abdellah, Aziz el-Kaissouni and Alastair Sharp in Cairo and Sue Pleming at the United Nations; writing by Cynthia Johnston; editing by Tim Pearce)
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