Two American tourists and their Egyptian guide who were kidnapped in the Sinai Peninsula on Friday have been released, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo has confirmed to CBS News.
Rev. Michel Louis, 61, a Boston pastor, and Lissa Alphonse, 39, of Everett, Mass., had been abducted, along with their guide, Haytham Ragab, as their tour group was traveling on a church trip to Mount Sinai.
The hostage-taker, an Egyptian Bedouin named Jirmy Abu-Masuh, told the Associated Press 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.
Abu-Masuh had said he would not free the two Americans until his uncle was released from jail. He said his uncle was detained for refusing to pay the police a bribe.
Abu-Masuh also vowed to take more hostages, of different nationalities, if his demands were not met. Egyptian officials said earlier on Monday they would not release the uncle until he completes a 15-day prison sentence for possession of drugs.
The abduction took place along the road linking Cairo to the sixth-century St. Catherine's Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai where the Old Testament says Moses received the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. The route is a frequent target by Bedouins who abduct tourists to pressure police to meet their demands, usually to release a detained relative they say has been unjustly arrested.
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. 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 2 miles from Egypt's border with Israel.
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.
Friday's abduction was the latest in a series of kidnappings in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula over the past year. Abducted tourists are rarely harmed and usually released within days.
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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.
Abu-Masuh, of the Tarbeen tribe in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, told the AP that Egypt's Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri called him personally and asked him to release the Americans "who are guests in our country." He said his uncle called him from prison pleading the same and fearing police might arrest his children or wife to pressure Abu-Masuh.