Eight kidnappers of a group of European tourists and their Egyptian guides led soldiers on a high-speed desert chase Sunday, ending in a firefight that killed all but two of the gunmen, Sudan’s military spokesman said.
The two surviving kidnappers told Sudanese soldiers that the tourists were being held by 35 more gunmen in Chad, said the spokesman, Sawarmy Khaled.
The desert safari tour of 11 Europeans and eight Egyptians was seized by gunmen deep in the southern Egyptian deserts Sept. 19 and the victims have apparently been shuttled around in the remote region where Sudan, Chad, Egypt and Libya share borders.
Khaled told The Associated Press that Sudanese soldiers were searching south of the Jebel Oweinat region near the Libyan border when they came upon a white vehicle carrying eight gunmen.
“The armed forces called for it to stop, but they did not respond and there was pursuit in which six of the armed men were killed,” he said, including the leader of the group, which he identified as a Chadian named Bakhit.
A subsequent statement from Brig. Gen. Mohamed Osman al-Aghbash, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said five soldiers were wounded in the chase, including the unit’s second-in-command, a first lieutenant, who was described as in grievous condition.
The statement said a second vehicle, described as a “tourist bus” labeled “Interville” and with Egyptian license plates was confiscated along with assault rifles, ammunition and rocket- propelled grenades.
The ministry said documents bearing the logo of a Darfur rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Movement, were also seized from the bandits.
Mohammed Abdullah, a commander of the rebel group in northern Darfur, denied involvement in the kidnapping, calling it an act of banditry. He accused Sudan of fabricating the news to implicate his movement in the kidnapping and distract from the government’s “crimes against the people of Darfur.”
Darfur rebel movements and government forces are locked in a bitter battles several hundred miles south of where the kidnapping occurred.
The kidnapping highlighted how easy it is for bandits to cross 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.
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, far from the Western Desert and the Gilf al-Kebir.
But the Gilf, a plateau 500 miles southwest of Cairo, draws some adventure tourists with its sand dunes and desert cliffs, as well as a 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.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Omar Sinan in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.