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Hostage drama ended with desert drive to safety
Italy Egypt Kidnapp 5714708
Walter Barotto, center, one of the five Italians who are part of a tour group that had been kidnapped in Egypt and taken on a 10-day dash across the Sahara to the frontier of Chad, is greeted by his sister, left, and brother upon his arrival in Turin, northern Italy, after being released, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008. - photo by Associated Press

    CAIRO, Egypt — 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 Egyptian security officials describing a dramatic rescue involving gunbattles 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.
    ‘‘The first days we — I mean us women especially — kept our heads down, with a veil. This was our own choice, it seemed the most appropriate behavior. We didn’t look for any contact,’’ said Giovanna Quaglia, another Italian in the group. ‘‘But I must say we were never subjected to physical violence.’’
    The only person physically mistreated was the Egyptian policeman escorting the group — a requirement for any tour group going to the Gilf, though the policeman was unarmed. ‘‘They kicked him in the face when they learned that he was a security man,’’ Mohammed said.
    Abdel-Hakim said the kidnappers were ethnic Africans — apparently Muslim because they prayed and observed the Ramadan fast — and they spoke their own language, talking to the Egyptians in broken Arabic.
    ‘‘Some of them were wearing khaki, others in robes, but all of them in something like turbans,’’ he said.
    One Italian, Mirella De Giuli, told the ANSA news agency there were as many as 40 kidnappers, some of whom looked as young as 15.
    The Egyptian captives, most of whom were also fasting, prepared two meals a day for the Europeans from the tour group’s supplies — bread and cheese in the morning, pasta and potatoes after sunset — trying to minimize interaction between gunmen and tourists, Abdel-Hakim said.
    At one point a sandstorm blew for three days, forcing them to stop, and the tourists remained inside the vehicles for shelter.
    Throughout, German authorities were negotiating by satellite phone with the kidnappers, who were demanding up to $15 million in ransom. Germany has refused any comment, but Egyptian, German and Italian officials said no ransom was paid.
    On Sunday morning, Sudanese troops encountered eight of the kidnappers, apparently sent to get fuel and food. In a gunbattle, six of the gunmen were killed and two captured, Egyptian and Sudanese officials said. The two said the rest of the gunmen and their captives were at a site just on the Chad-Sudan border, the officials said.
    That day, the hostages saw their captors get a satellite phone call, apparently telling them about the gunbattle, though it’s not known who made the call. That is when the gunmen told the Egyptian guides and drivers to line up.
    ‘‘We were terrified because we never knew what they would do to us in retaliation,’’ Abdel-Hakim said.
    But abruptly, the gunmen ‘‘just shouted ’go, go, go!’ and they packed all of us in one car, allowing us to drive away,’’ Italian tourist Walter Barotto told SKY TG24 television.
    They drove from 8 p.m. Sunday to 11 a.m. Monday, across unfamiliar desert at night. Thankfully, Abdel-Hakim said, they had been left their Global Positioning System to navigate. Finally, they crossed the Egyptian border.
    The freed tourists say they don’t know why their captors abruptly let them go.
    ‘‘We were thought we were going to die every day 10 times a day,’’ Abdel-Hakim said.
    Associated Press writer Marta Falconi in Rome contributed to this report.

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