Egyptian officials plan talks to free U.S. hostages

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 15, 2012 2:11 PM

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian officials are preparing for negotiations to secure the release of two Americans abducted in the mountainous Sinai region and enlisting Bedouin tribal leaders as mediators, a security source said on Sunday.

U.S. officials have also said they are working with Egyptian authorities to broker a release of the Americans.

A Bedouin tribesman, Germy Abu Masouh, said he had kidnapped a U.S. pastor, an American woman and their Egyptian tour guide in central Sinai on Friday to protest the jailing of his uncle on drug charges, according to one security source.

Abu Masouh is from a prominent family within the Tarabin, the biggest Sinai Bedouin tribe in Egypt.

Michel Louis, 61, the pastor of a predominately Haitian-American church in Massachusetts, was traveling to Israel on an annual trip to retrace the steps of Jesus when his tour bus was ambushed by Bedouin tribesmen in central Sinai on Friday.

"A high-level security delegation has been formed in addition to some tribal sheikhs to enter direct negotiations with the kidnappers to end the crisis in a peaceful manner," the security source said.

The source did not say when the talks might begin.

Abu Masouh has tied the release of the hostages to that of his uncle, jailed in Alexandria after being found guilty of handling half a ton of drugs, the source said.

The son of the abducted pastor said his congregation was praying for his return.

"We are giving God praise in advance because we believe the victory is not in our hands but in God's, but we also know that we have elected officials who are doing everything they can," Jean Louis, who acts as a spokesman for the family, told Reuters.

"Everything is going to work out," he said, adding that Senator Scott Brown, a Republican from Massachusetts, had told him on Sunday that he and other officials were doing "the best they can" to negotiate his father's release.

The U.S. State Department repeated earlier statements about negotiations with their Egyptian counterparts.

"We are in close contact with Egyptian authorities who are doing everything they can to bring about their safe release," State Department spokesman John Echard said.

Several other tourists have been held briefly by tribesmen in Egypt in recent months and have been released unharmed, often after less than a few hours of negotiations with authorities.

Bedouin have attacked police stations, blocked access to towns and taken hostages to show their discontent with what they see as their poor treatment by Cairo and to press for the release of jailed kinsmen.

Two American women were kidnapped in Sinai in February but Egyptian authorities negotiated their release a few hours later. The incident was repeated in late May with two other U.S. tourists, who were also released a day later.

Security in the isolated desert region has deteriorated since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising in February 2011. South Sinai's Red Sea coast is a major tourism hub for Egypt.

(Reporting by Yusri Mohamed and Tom Perryi in Egypt and Lily Kuo in the United States; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer, Daniel Trotta and David Brunnstrom)