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Wed 1 Oct 2008 10:43 AM

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Desert hostages return home

19 tourists kidnapped in Egypt return to home countries amid conflicting accounts of liberation.

Desert hostages return home
RETURNING HOME: Five Germans and a Romanian woman who spent 10 days as hostages disembark at Berlins Tegel Airport. (AFP)

Europeans held captive by bandits for 10 days along with other hostages returned to their home countries on Tuesday amid conflicting accounts of their liberation.

Five Germans were greeted by their families and senior officials when they landed at Berlin's Tegel airport after being released with 14 other hostages on Monday, the foreign ministry said.

"The state secretaries expressed their relief about the safe return of the holiday makers," the ministry said in a statement.

Also on board were special forces from the German army, members of the GSG 9 special operations unit, federal police officers, staff from the Federal Crime Office and logistical support staff from the THW federal relief agency, the ministry said.

Five Italians also returned home safely early on Tuesday.

The Europeans were part of a group of 19 hostages that also included a Romanian and eight Egyptian drivers and tour guides seized by bandits while on safari in a lawless area of Egypt's southwestern desert on Sept. 19.

Officials in Cairo had said the hostages were freed unharmed in a pre-dawn raid on Monday by Egyptian special forces.

Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi said "half of the kidnappers were eliminated" in the raid by about 30 Egyptian special forces with Italian and German special forces on standby.

However this was disputed by European officials who said there had been little or no violence.

"I say with great clarity that there was an operation that led to the release of our hostages. I never spoke of a raid, I never spoke of a violent incursion," Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters.

"The release of the hostages came about through an international operation that saw our men and our special forces collaborate with the Germans, Sudanese, Egyptians, and I will add, Libyans for a brief period."

The German foreign ministry said its troops had not been needed in the operation.

"The Egyptian government had expressed its willingness to integrate security forces offered by the German side as support," it said. "However these forces did not need to be deployed."

Italy's ANSA news agency also quoted an unnamed official as saying that the rescue took place "without bloodshed because when they were freed by Egyptian security forces, the kidnappers had already left".

Frattini denied a ransom had been paid. The kidnappers had demanded Germany take charge of a 6 million-euro ($9 million) payment to be handed over to the German wife of the tour organiser, who was also a hostage.

German officials refused to comment.

The Italians who returned home said they were not mistreated by their captors but that they were terrified and at one point lost all hope of being rescued, the ANSA news agency reported.

The hostages were first moved across the border to Sudan to the remote mountain region of Jebel Uweinat, a plateau that straddles the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan, before the bandits took them into Chad, according to Sudanese officials.

Khartoum says the kidnappers belong to a splinter Darfur rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army-Unity (SLA-Unity) but an SLA-Unity spokesman denied his group's involvement.

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