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Tue 23 Sep 2008 02:48 AM

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Egypt still working to free European tourists

UPDATE 1: Despite earlier announcement, kidnap victims still being held by abductors.

Egypt is still working for the release of 11 kidnapped European tourists, the official MENA news agency said Tuesday, despite an announcement they had been freed along with eight Egyptians.

"Egyptian efforts are ongoing to release the abducted tourists," MENA quoted an unnamed official as saying after Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said in New York that all 19 had been freed "safe and sound".

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said that the words "attributed to Foreign Minister Abul Gheit ... were inexact."

"Information from Egypt indicates that the situation is unchanged," MENA quoted him as saying about the fate of the European tourists and their Egyptian guides, drivers and a guard, snatched at gunpoint in the desert on Friday.

Five Italians and five Germans were among those kidnapped, but the Italian and German embassies in Cairo both said they were trying to confirm reports of the release. A Romanian is also being held.

Abul Gheit said the captives were released near the Libyan-Sudanese-Egyptian border, after masked gunmen attacked their group of four off-road vehicles in one of the most isolated parts of the Sahara desert on Friday.

The tourism ministry of Egypt -- a nation that relies heavily on tourism earnings -- stressed that "this is an act of banditry not of terrorism."

"Four masked gunmen attacked four vehicles affiliated to a tourist company. They kidnapped the tourists and led them to the Sudanese lands," MENA quoted the tourism ministry as saying earlier Monday.

Authorities only became aware of the kidnapping when the tour company owner, who is among the missing, used a satellite telephone to call his German wife and tell her of the ransom demand.

The tourism ministry said those snatched included five Germans, five Italians and a Romanian, as well as two Egyptian guides, four drivers, a guard and the tour company owner.

MENA said the tour company operator had called his wife late on Monday to tell her the group was "safe and sound."

Garana, the tourism minister, earlier said Egypt had not been negotiating with the kidnappers and there was no word on their identity or "their group."

German authorities were in touch with them, Garana said, adding that they had asked for a ransom of between eight and 15 million dollars, MENA said.

He said the group was being held in the Karkuk Talh, just across the border in Sudan, having started their safari near Gilf el-Kabir , a rugged and largely uninhabited region on the border with Sudan.

A spokesman for Sudan's Northern State, which borders Egypt and Libya to the north and west and the war-torn Darfur region to the south, told AFP that "until now we have no information about this" abduction.

Rebels from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, which lies less than 300 kilometres (190 miles) south of the Egypt-Sudan border, were quick to deny involvement.

"We have nothing to do with any kidnap," said Ahmed Hussein Adam, a London-based spokesman for the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Mahgoub Hussein, a London-based spokesman for a key faction of the Darfur rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), said none of his fighters was involved.

"We are not part of this, because it is a criminal act to target tourists like this," said Hussein, who represents the SLA-Unity faction.

The area of the kidnapping is a desert plateau famous for prehistoric cave paintings, including the "Cave of the Swimmers" featured in the 1996 film "The English Patient."

The Egyptian tour company owner told his wife in the satellite phone call that they had been kidnapped by five masked men speaking English "with an African accent" very close to the Sudan border, MENA reported.

Kidnappings of foreigners are extremely rare in Egypt, although in 2001 an armed Egyptian held four German tourists hostage for three days in Luxor, demanding his estranged wife brings his two sons back from Germany. He freed the hostages unharmed.

Egypt has, however, witnessed a number of deadly attacks against foreigners which have been blamed on Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants.

The most recent attacks occurred between 2004 and 2006 in popular Red Sea resorts.

In April 2006, 20 people were killed in bomb blasts in Dahab; in July 2005, 70 were killed in Sharm el-Sheikh; and in October 2004, 34 people were killed in Taba.

In November 1997, 62 people - among them 58 foreign holidaymakers - were killed in an attack on a popular tourist site in the southern Nile resort of Luxor. The attack was claimed by the Islamist group Jammaa Islamiyya.

More and more foreign visitors are visiting the remote southwest of Egypt near its borders with Sudan and Libya to see the prehistoric rock art preserved for millennia in one of the most isolated reaches of the Sahara.

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