CAIRO — Eleven European tourists kidnapped by masked bandits in southern Egypt were freed Monday after a 10-day odyssey that ended when Egyptian and Sudanese commandos swept across a remote desert landscape.
Details of the rescue operation were scant. The tourists -- five Germans, five Italians and one Romanian -- and their eight Egyptian drivers and guides were released early in the day. Their freedom came hours after Sudan announced Sunday that its forces had killed six kidnappers and arrested two others in a gun battle.
Egyptian state-owned television said the tourists were rescued in a "special mission." Egyptian and Sudanese troops with helicopter cover reportedly overpowered the kidnappers in the Sahara desert near the borders of Libya, Egypt and Sudan. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said his country's special forces also were involved, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.
Frattini later told Italian TV: "It was an operation of excellent professionalism. We have to obviously thank our German friends who worked with us, Egypt as well as Sudan."
Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said half of the kidnappers, who over the last week had been described as both tribal bandits and members of a Sudanese rebel group, had been "liquidated."
Zoheir Garana, Egypt's tourism minister, said of the hostages, "They are all in good shape." He added, "I don't know any details about the rescue operation that took place because all the details are with the security authorities that carried out the operation."
There were conflicting reports as to exactly how the tourists were freed, including a Sudanese government version that after the gun battle the hostages were abandoned by the surviving captors and wandered near the Libya-Egypt-Sudan border, where they were discovered by military forces. They boarded a plane with Egyptian commandos and were flown to a military base 25 miles east of Cairo.
The tourists, some waving and holding flowers after getting off the plane, were taken to a military hospital for checkups. They appeared exhausted but not severely injured. The group was greeted by Egyptian authorities and ambassadors from Germany and Italy. It was not clear where the guides and drivers were treated.
The ordeal, which began Sept. 19 near the painted caves of Gilf al Kebir, about 550 miles southwest of Cairo, unfolded amid ransom demands, negotiations and a trek that led the captives over stretches of the Sahara desert in at least two countries. The kidnappers reportedly asked for as much as $6 million in ransom. German negotiators had been in contact with the kidnappers before Sunday's ambush by Sudanese troops. Egyptian authorities said no ransom was paid.
The tourists and Egyptians were snatched from four utility vehicles on a landscape of sparse majesty and prehistoric cave paintings. The arid region, site of scenes in the 1996 movie "The English Patient," is a dangerous swath of jagged rocks and dunes ventured to by only intrepid adventure seekers. The fate of the tourists became of national concern for Egypt, which last year took in nearly $8 billion in tourism revenue.
"We will coordinate with security agencies to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Garana.
Fleishman is a Times staff writer and El-Hennawy a special correspondent.