CAIRO — Kidnappers seized 11 European tourists and eight Egyptians during a Sahara desert safari to Gilf al-Kebir, a plateau famed for its prehistoric cave paintings, Egyptian officials said Monday.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in New York that the group had been freed unharmed Monday, and a military official confirmed their release. But Egyptian officials in Cairo and New York later said that they had not yet been freed and that Aboul Gheit's announcement was based on incorrect information.
The five Germans, five Italians and one Romanian were seized Friday along with their Egyptian guides and drivers while camping near the Sudanese border, Egyptian Tourism Minister Zoheir Garana said. The kidnappers took the captives, including two Italians in their 70s, into Sudan, he said.
Only a few intrepid visitors make the daunting trek of more than a week in 4X4s across the desert to the Gilf al-Kebir, which lies near Egypt's borders with Libya and Sudan beyond a vast plain of dunes known as the Great Sand Sea. It is one of the most arid places on Earth.
The plateau has become increasingly popular among adventure and eco-tourists drawn by the stark desert landscapes and the prehistoric paintings in caves that dot the plateau. They include the "Cave of the Swimmers," immortalized in the 1996 movie The English Patient.
The unpopulated region is a crossroads for ethnic African tribesmen — including smugglers — from Libya, Sudan and even Chad, farther south. It borders Sudan's Darfur region, where raging conflicts have given rise to armed bandits who have become notorious for robberies and hijackings.