The operation ends a 10-day hostage drama that took the 11 Europeans and their eight Egyptian drivers and guides across a barren stretch of the Sahara Desert. They were seized by gunmen on Sept. 19 while on a desert safari trip in a remote corner of southwestern Egypt. Their abductors took them to Sudan. Reports followed that they were then taken to Libya, or perhaps even Chad.
An Egyptian security official said they were rescued in a joint operation near the Sudanese-Chadian border late Sunday or early Monday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi said "half the kidnappers" were killed in the rescue operation, according to the state news agency MENA, but the report did not give a precise number or give details on the rescue.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini suggested Italian and German special forces were involved. He told the Sky TG24 news channel that Sudan and Egypt carried out "a highly professional operation" with the "intervention of Italian intelligence and experts from the special forces" from Germany and Italy.
The break in the hunt for the tourists came Sunday, when Sudanese forces engaged a group of the kidnappers in a gunbattle in northwest Sudan who had been sent out to get gas and food, the Egyptian security official said. Six kidnappers were killed in that fight, and two captured. The two told the authorities where the rest of the kidnappers and their captives were hiding, the official said.
The Sudanese and Egyptian militaries, using two helicopters, then launched the assault that freed the captives, two security officials said. One said there was an exchange of fire and that the hostages were freed inside Chadian territory, but there was no confirmation of where exactly the assault took place. Many of the borders in the desert region are unmarked and easily crossed.
The official said the tourists, who include two Italians in their 70s, were "feeble" but in good health. MENA reported that none of the captives were hurt in the rescue.
The freed captives, who included five Germans, five Italians, a Romanian and eight Egyptian guides and drivers, were brought by a military plane to Cairo on Monday, greeted at the airport by officials bearing bouquets of flowers. They were then taken to a military hospital for checkups.
"Our compatriots and the other hostages in Egypt have been freed," Frattini was quoted as saying by Italy's ANSA news agency. "It is the result of international cooperation for which we have to be really grateful to the authorities of other countries that have been working with us."
Asked if a ransom had been paid, Frattini said, "we can certainly deny this."
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner would only say that his office was "aware" of the reports. The Romanian government confirmed the release of the tourists, but had no details.
The kidnappers had reportedly been asking for up to $15 million in ransom. German authorities had been negotiating with them by phone, according to Egyptian officials, while Sudanese and Egyptian forces working with Germany and Italy were searching the deserts for the abducted group.
The kidnappers were believed to be armed desert tribesmen. Tour operators working in Egypt's Western Desert have reported several robberies of tourists in the area by heavily armed gunmen in SUVs and expressed fears the violence could be a spillover from the conflicts in eastern Chad and Sudan's war-torn Darfur.
The tour group was abducted while visiting the Gilf al-Kebir, a desert plateau famous for its prehistoric cave paintings. It is one of the most remote, little-visited sites in Egypt, lying in the country's far southwestern corner near the Sudanese and Libyan borders.
Eastern Chad and Darfur lie about 200-250 miles away across largely unguarded desert terrain. Both areas have become notorious for car-jackings and other robberies by armed bands.