Bedouin tribesmen abducted two female American tourists and their Egyptian guide at gunpoint Friday but released them several hours later after negotiations with tribal leaders in the Sinai Peninsula, the region's security chief said.
The brazen daylight abduction along a busy highway was a new blow to Egypt's vital tourism industry, which has been heavily battered by the unrest following last year's uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.
Tensions across the nation have spiked since a deadly soccer riot on Wednesday that has spiraled into a political crisis and fueled anger at the ruling military council after protesters accused police of standing by and allowing the bloodshed.
Also Friday, four masked gunmen stopped the vehicle of two Italians working for a local food factory in the nearby city of Suez, taking their car, more than 10,000 euros ($13,000) and their laptops, the director of the company Mohammed Antar said. The attackers let the Italians go.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Naguib, the head of security for southern Sinai, said the three were snatched from a minivan after it was intercepted at gunpoint while carrying the group from St. Catherine's Monastery to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The attackers, who were driving a sedan and a pickup truck, then sped away into the mountains. A helicopter buzzed over the area as authorities launched a search and rescue mission.
The bus was carrying three other people who were left behind, Naguib said. Their nationalities were not immediately known.
The gunmen were demanding the release of a number of fellow tribesmen arrested this week on drug trafficking and robbery charges but agreed to free the women after mediation efforts between officials and tribal leaders, Naguib said.
Security officers then drove to an area called Wadi Feran where the women and the guide were being kept and took them back to the police station in St. Catherine, the town near the historic site, which UNESCO says is the oldest Christian monastery still in use for its original function.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed the release of the two American citizens and thanked the Egyptian authorities for their quick response to the kidnappings.
"We certainly appreciate the efforts of the Egyptian authorities in securing the releases," he told a news briefing.
He said he could not name the Americans because of privacy considerations.
Bedouins have long complained of discrimination and random arrests by the government and the area was restive even under Mubarak, but tensions have risen in recent months along with a general deterioration of security in the region that has included attacks on police stations, armed militias roving the streets and attacks on pipelines carrying gas to Jordan and Israel.
Earlier this week, armed Islamic militants also seized 25 Chinese factory workers after forcing them off a bus elsewhere in the peninsula, but they were released the next day. The kidnappers were also demanding the release of members of their group arrested years before on charges of terrorism.
In general, Egypt has faced a surge in crime since the uprising, which uprooted Mubarak's police state that kept tight control over the population of 85 million. Protesters accuse the military council that took power after Mubarak's ouster and the police force of negligence.
Tourism Minister Mounir Abdel-Nour said last month that the number of tourists who came to Egypt in 2011 dropped to 9.8 million from 14.7 million the previous year. Revenues for the year clocked in at $8.8 billion compared to $12.5 billion in 2010.
Adel Shokry, the secretary general of the south Sinai Hotel Association, said occupancy in the area has suffered in the past few months because of the increasing lawlessness.
"The security agencies are not working as efficiently as they had before. They must review their positions," he said. "With all these incidents, it is clearly not easy. But we must move. I think the army must step in to fill in this security vacuum."
Normally at this time of year, which is not high season, Shokry said hotel occupancy rates can reach up to 65 percent. "Currently, we are no more than 30 percent in all of Sinai," he said.
Ranya Barakat, the owner of one of Sinai's main publications, said the deteriorating security situation in Sinai coupled with the recurrent violence in Cairo has turned people away from the region. Friday's kidnapping will just be another sharp blow.
"It will really be felt, it will have a strong impact," she said.
Charter flights from Europe for the summer season are drawn up in January and February, and she said the news of the kidnapping is expected to negatively impact bookings.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.