European Tourists are Kidnapped in Egypt

CAIRO, Egypt - A group of 11 European tourists and four Egyptians were kidnapped during an adventure safari to one of the remotest sites in Egypt deep in the Sahara desert and were taken across the border into neighboring Sudan, officials said Monday.

The kidnappers may have been desert tribesmen. Egyptian Tourism Minister Zoheir Garana said his ministry was negotiating with the kidnappers, who were demanding up to $6 million in ransom.

The five Germans, five Italians and one Romanian were seized along with their Egyptian guides while camping near the Sudanese border by the Gilf al-Kebir, a giant plateau beyond the Great Sand Sea famed for its prehistoric cave paintings, an Egyptian security official said.

Only a few intrepid tourists make the daunting trek to the Gilf al-Kabir, but it has become increasingly popular among adventure and eco-tourists. They are drawn by the stark desert landscapes and the Neolithic cave art that dots the plateau — particularly the so-called "Cave of the Swimmers," with its 10,000-year-old paintings of people swimming, immortalized in the 1996 film "The English Patient."

Germany said the group was missing since Friday. The tourists were setting up their tents when the armed kidnappers drove up, the official said. One of the Italians was able to call his wife by cell phone and told them the kidnappers were "African" in appearance, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press.

The region, some 550 miles (900 kilometers) southwest of Cairo, lies near the porous Libyan and Sudanese desert borders and is a crossroads for ethnic African tribes that stretch into nearby Chad.

Magdy Rady, an Egyptian government spokesman, said the group was believed to have been taken into Sudan. The four kidnapped Egyptians were believed to be tour guides and security guards.

Rady said Egyptian and Sudanese authorities were coordinating on the kidnapping.

"There is no direct contact with the kidnappers. All the contact is indirect through the tourist company" that organized the safari, he said.

A tour guide who operates in the area said colleagues in the Western Desert told him the kidnappers were tribesmen, possibly from Chad. Mohammed Marzouk said there have been previous incidents in the area, most recently in May, when tribesmen seized two tour company SUVs during a desert trip.

The Italian and German foreign ministries confirmed that five nationals from each of their nations are among those taken. The German Foreign Ministry said it was calling its crisis team together later Monday to launch efforts to help free them.

Islamic militants waged a campaign of violence, including attacks on tourists, in the 1990s along the Nile River, but never strayed into the vast expanses of Egypt's empty deserts. The campaign was suppressed in a fierce crackdown by the governmnent of President Hosni Mubarak.

Since 2004, attacks on foreigners shifted to the beach resorts of the distant Sinai peninsula, with a total of 121 people, including tourists, killed in a series of bombings.

But there have been no known Islamic militant attacks in the Western Desert.

Tourists are required to get permits from the military to visit the site and must travel in tour groups with at least one security guard. The tour, done in desert 4X4s, can take up more than 12 days.

The Egyptian security official said the kidnapped tour group had begun its safari on Sept. 16 from one of the oases in the Western Desert, between the Gilf el-Kebir and the Nile Valley.