EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Two American tourists and their Egyptian guide who were abducted by a Bedouin in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula last week were released unharmed on Monday, a security official and the kidnapper told The Associated Press.
Rev. Michel Louis, 61, and 39-year-old Lissa Alphonse, both Boston-area residents, had been kidnapped from a bus on Friday along with their guide, Haytham Ragab, on a Sinai road by a Bedouin who was demanding the release of his uncle, who had been detained by Egyptian police on suspicion of drug possession.
The kidnapper, Jirmy Abu-Masuh, told AP that he had handed the three over to security officials near the northern Sinai city of el-Arish on Monday after he was promised that authorities were working on his uncle's release.
"We are a people of mercy and they don't have anything to do with this," Abu-Masuh said, referring to the Americans.
Gen. Ahmed Bakr, head of security in North Sinai province, confirmed the release and said the three were now in the protection of security officials in Sinai. In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell also confirmed their release and thanked Egyptian authorites.
Egyptian officials made clear earlier Monday that they would not bend to Abu-Masuh's demands. Officials and heads of tribes met with him for several hours Monday before an agreement to release the hostages was reached, according to officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The abduction illustrated a broader breakdown of security in the Sinai, a key destination in Egypt's vital tourism industry, where lawlessness has risen since last year's ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Relations between the Bedouin and authorities have long been tumultuous, but under the Mubarak regime's tight hold, the disputes very rarely spilled over to effect tourists.
However, this year has seen a string of kidnappings of tourists, usually by Bedouin trying to wrest concessions from authorities or the release of jailed relatives. In most cases, captives have been released unhurt after a few days.
The two Americans, on a tour of the Holy Land, had been heading from Cairo to the 6th century St. Catherine's Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai, said to be the site where Moses received the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Abu-Masuh, 32, told the AP that he had stopped their tour bus and ordered them to get off, along with the guide Ragab to assist with translation, as a way to force his uncle's release. He contended his uncle had been unfairly arrested and was being held because he refused to pay a bribe. Abu-Masuh said the hostages were fed, offered tea and coffee and slept in his home.
Ragab, 28, told the AP on Friday from the captor's phone that he and the two Americans had been fed a roast lamb and were staying at Abu-Masuh's home in the harsh mountain terrain of central Sinai.
Officials say the captives were held three kilometers (2 miles) from Egypt's border with Israel.
Louis, a Presbyterian pastor, was on the trip with his wife, Fredrick Gladys Louis, who was on the bus with him at the time and remained in Egypt afterward waiting for his release, their son, Rev. John Louis, said.
"She witnessed the whole thing, so you can only imagine," he said. "She's a fervent woman of God … she told us to tell everybody that everything is going to be alright."
The family was concerned that the 61-year-old pastor was unable to take his diabetes medication with him when he got off the bus. His family said he takes natural medication, not insulin.
Louis said he had been contacted by Massachusetts senators Scott Brown and John Kerry. Separately, a senior U.S. official said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton brought up the American's case when she met with her Egyptian counterpart in Cairo on Saturday.
Another of the pastor's sons, Daniel Louis, said the other kidnapped American, Alphonse, is the mother of two children, a 10-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy.
The Bedouins of the sparsely populated peninsula have long-running tensions with the government in Cairo and with the security forces in particular. Security officials say some Bedouin are involved in smuggling of drugs and migrants endemic to the peninsula.
The Bedouin, in turn, complain of state discrimination in the development of their region. Bedouin and Egyptian rights groups say the security forces are responsible for many abuses. Police hunting fugitives have staged mass arrests to pressure families to hand over their relatives. They frequently enter homes by force and detain women — particularly provocative acts in conservative Bedouin society.
There are also fears of an Islamic militant presence in the Sinai, where militants carried out a string of suicide bombings against tourist resorts in the mid-2000s. Israel says militants in Sinai are behind cross-border attacks into its territory in recent years.
Abu-Masuh said his uncle had been stopped and harassed on his way to the coastal city of Alexandria last week. When officials saw he was from Sinai, they harassed his uncle even more, Abu-Masuh said. He said his 62-year-old uncle, who raised him after his father died, suffers from back and heart problems as well as diabetes.
Officials said Abu-Masuh's uncle was detained on Saturday for 15 days pending investigation for alleged possession of drugs.
Egyptian security officials were in a tight spot with the latest abduction, unwilling to free the hostages by force and risk a violent confrontation with the captor's Tarbeen tribe. Any escalation with tribes there could lead to more abduction along the popular tourist route.