(AP Photo/Saedi Press, File)
CAIRO, Egypt - The abduction of a European tour group in a distant corner of Egypt's desert underlines the potential dangers of adventure tourism pushing deeper into remote destinations and getting closer to conflict zones.
In the case of the 11 Europeans and eight Egyptians held since Sept. 19, the lawlessness in the desert plateau of Gilf al-Kebir may be a spillover from the violence in eastern Chad and Sudan's Darfur region, where armed bands are notorious for hijacking and robberies.
Desert tour operators and security officials say there have been several robberies and car-jackings of tourists over the past year by heavily armed gunmen at Gilf al-Kebir, near the Sudanese and Libyan borders, which never previously saw such incidents.
Until recently, desert guides often ran into smugglers in the area but each side left the other alone, said guide Mahmoud Nour el-Din, who has led tours to the Gilf and other parts of Egypt's Western Desert for 12 years.
The bandits are a new element, better armed and more aggressive, he said — connecting them to Chad and Darfur.
"We never had attacks with guns before. We are starting to have incidents now and they are related to militia and gunmen. They started roaming around to steal cars," el-Din said.
The kidnapping is a dramatic escalation to the banditry, highlighting the ease of crossing the vast, unguarded desert borders, marked only by the occasional wooden signpost in the sand.
Gunmen seized 11 Italians, Germans and Romanians and their eight Egyptian guides and drivers and fled into Sudan. On Thursday, Sudanese officials said the kidnappers had moved again, into Libya, but Libyan officials said they couldn't find them and didn't believe they were on Libyan soil.
German officials have been negotiating with the kidnappers, who are demanding millions of dollars in ransom, but there has been no word on progress.
The vast majority of Egypt's 9 million tourists each year visit pharaonic sites along the Nile River or Red Sea beach resorts, a world away from the Western Desert and the Gilf al-Kebir.
The Gilf, a desert plateau 500 miles southwest of Cairo, has only recently become a popular destination. It rewards those who make the daunting trek with spectacular vistas of sand dunes and desert cliffs, as well as a treasure trove of prehistoric cave art. Around 2,000 tourists visited the area in the past year, up from only a handful a year less than a decade ago.
The area is uninhabited, but is a crossroads for nomadic tribes in all three countries, used by smugglers trafficking drugs, vehicles and even illegal migrants. It lies only 180 miles from Darfur and eastern Chad, where aid groups have been forced to cut back on travel because of frequent hijackings of convoys and kidnappings by armed groups.
The identity of the tourists' kidnappers remains a mystery, but they are presumed to be tribesmen, possibly Sudanese. Sudanese officials suggested they might be connected to Darfur rebels — a claim denied by rebel leaders — but others speculated they could be Chadian.
Egyptian tour operators say there have been several armed robberies in recent months in the Gilf area.
Tourist driver Hamada Marzouk says that last winter he and a tour group of one German and three Britons were camping at an area known as the Eight Bells, site of an abandoned World War II-era British airstrip near the Gilf, when they were attacked. His car had broken down and, while he was fixing it, a Land Cruiser with eight gunmen pulled up.
The gunmen appeared to be ethnic Africans and "I could only communicate with them by signals because I couldn't understand their language," Marzouk said.
"They forced us to sit while two of them pointed their automatic weapons at us," he told The Associated Press.
The gunmen took a satellite phone, mobile phones, money and computers. A second vehicle arrived with more gunmen and a heavy machine gun in the back, and the bandits began looting the tourists' cars, Marzouk said.
"When the German tourist protested, they pointed the gun at his head," Marzouk said. They did the same to Marzouk when he begged them not to take his GPS device. "I was forced to lay with my face down," he said. "They only thing they left is our clothes."
The bandits drove off after 90 minutes, leaving behind two vehicles. "We were in shock," Marzouk said. "We thanked God that we didn't die."
The tour group made its way back to the Dakhla Oasis, the nearest settled area some 220 miles away. They reported the incident to the tourist police, who instead ended up briefly detaining Marzouk because he had made the safari without the required military permit. They accused Marzouk of fabricating the story, he said.
Egyptian security officials said there were two similar incidents in January 2007 and in 2003, but would not provide details. The incidents were kept quiet and not made public at the time, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the issue.
Another driver, Ahmed Mohammed Ali, told the AP he had a close call in August, when he was stopped at Eight Bells with two Italian tourists.
"Before sunset while we were camping, we saw from a distance a Land Cruiser coming toward us with 15 men on top of it. We hurried to our cars and fled. We stopped after a while, and using our binoculars we saw them heading toward us, so we fled again," he said.
Egyptian officials say Sept. 19 kidnapping did not have political motives and was not connected to Islamic militants who in the 1990s waged a campaign of violence that included attacks on tourists and more recently carried out bloody bombings in Sinai Peninsula beach resorts.
The governor of the New Valley, the province that includes the Western Desert and the Gilf, insists the area is safe. "It's very stable. Tourism is stable," Gen. Ali Mokhtar said.
Associated Press writer Lee Keath contributed to this report.