Hostage drama ends with desert drive

The end of a 10-day ordeal for the tour group came far out in the desolate Sahara, when kidnappers lined up some of the captives and cocked their weapons.

“At that moment, we thought we were dead,” said one Egyptian guide.

Instead, the gunmen shouted: “Go, go, go!”

The 11 European tourists and eight Egyptian guides and drivers crammed into a single four-wheel-drive vehicle, five of them perched on the roof, and made a harrowing drive to safety across more than 200 miles of desert on a moonless night, the freed hostages said Tuesday. Their captors apparently fled.

“We made it, and it was a true miracle,” guide Hassan Abdel-Hakim told The Associated Press at a Cairo hospital. “No one rescued us. No Germans, no Sudanese and no Egyptians. Only God.”

His and other accounts contradicted reports by the Egyptian security officials who described a dramatic rescue involving gun battles between the hostage-takers and Egyptian-Sudanese troops backed by German and Italian commandos. There was no Egyptian official comment on the new accounts.

Another guide, Sherif Farouq Mohammed, said that when the freed hostages reached the border Monday morning – exhausted but unharmed – they were met by Egyptian border guards, guns drawn, apparently believing they were the kidnappers.

“They pointed their weapons at us and we were waving our hands trying to tell them that we are the hostages,” he said.

The trek to safety came after 10 days of being dragged across the barren wilderness of northwestern Sudan by the kidnappers, even weathering a sandstorm, until their captors abandoned the group near the Sudan-Chad border.

Five Germans, five Italians, a Romanian and their Egyptian guides were seized Sept. 19 while on a safari to the Gilf al-Kebir, a desert plateau in southwestern Egypt famed for prehistoric cave paintings. Heavily armed gunmen roared up in SUVs, ordered them to kneel and looted their belongings – including mobile phones, a satellite phone, laptop computers and cash.

It was “just like you see in the movies,” Michele Barrera, 71, told the AP from his home near Turin, Italy, hours after he and the other Europeans were flown to their homelands.

The kidnappers, believed to be Sudanese or Chadian tribesmen, took the captives and their vehicles across the nearby border into Sudan. Egyptian and Sudanese troops scoured the empty landscape while the gunmen moved the group from place to place.

Abdel-Hakim said the kidnappers were ethnic Africans – apparently Muslim because they prayed and observed the Ramadan fast.

The tourists say they don't know why captors abruptly let them go. “We thought we were going to die every day 10 times a day,” Abdel-Hakim said.