EL-ARISH, Egypt - Bedouin gunmen intercepted a tourist minivan and snatched two female American tourists and their Egyptian guide at gunpoint Friday near St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, the region's security chief said.
The brazen daylight abduction along a busy highway was a new blow to Egypt's vital tourism industry, which has been heavily battered by the unrest following last year's uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.
Also Friday, four masked gunmen stopped the vehicle of two Italians working for a local food factory in the nearby city of Suez, taking their car, more than 10,000 euros ($13,000) and their laptops, the director of the company Mohammed Antar said. The attackers let the Italians go.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Naguib, the head of security for southern Sinai, said the abductors of the American tourists were driving a sedan and a pickup truck and sped away into the mountains after seizing the two women, who were returning from the monastery to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The attackers were demanding the release of a number of fellow tribesmen arrested this week on drug trafficking and robbery charges. Tribal leaders were mediating efforts to free the tourists, ages 60 and 65, and their guide, Naguib told The Associated Press. A helicopter also was leading a search and rescue mission.
The bus was carrying three other people who were left behind, Naguib said. Their nationalities were not immediately known.
Egyptian authorities informed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo of the abduction, an Embassy spokesperson said. U.S. officials were working to identify the kidnapped Americans but offered no other information on the incident.
Naguib said the attackers were Bedouin tribesmen who resist government control and have been blamed for several attacks in recent months as tensions intensify between them and authorities they accuse of discrimination and of ignoring their plight.
Bedouins have long complained of discrimination and random arrests by the government, but tensions have intensified in recent months along with a general deterioration of security in the region including attacks on police stations, armed militias roving the streets and attacks on pipelines carrying gas to Jordan and Israel.
Earlier this week, armed Islamic militants also seized 25 Chinese factory workers after forcing them off a bus elsewhere in the peninsula, but they were released the next day. The kidnappers were also demanding the release of members of their group arrested years before on charges of terrorism.
In general, Egypt has faced a surge in crime since the uprising, which uprooted Mubarak's police state that kept tight control over the population of 85 million. Protesters accuse the military council that has assumed power and the police force of negligence.
Tourism Minister Mounir Abdel-Nour said last month that the number of tourists who came to Egypt in 2011 dropped to 9.8 million from 14.7 million the previous year. Revenues for the year clocked in at $8.8 billion compared to $12.5 billion in 2010.