German tourists back home after desert ordeal

Five Germans who spent 10 days as hostages along with 14 others returned to Berlin from Egypt on Tuesday a day after their liberation, the German Foreign Ministry said.

German tourists back home after desert ordeal
Photo: DPA

The five were greeted by their families and by senior government officials from the after landing at Berlin Tegel airport, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

They were part of a group of 19 hostages that also included five Italians, a Romanian and eight Egyptian drivers and tour guides seized by bandits in a lawless area of Egypt’s southwestern desert on September 19.

They were freed unharmed in a pre-dawn raid by Egyptian special forces on Monday, according to officials in Egypt.

Egyptian Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi said “half of the kidnappers were eliminated” in the raid, the official MENA news agency reported, although this was disputed by other sources who said there had been little or no violence. “Just before dawn two helicopters flew in special forces from the elite Lightning Brigade who freed the hostages,” an Egyptian security official told AFP, asking not to be named. “There was a gunfight during which half the around 35 kidnappers were killed and the rest escaped,” he said.

About 150 Egyptian special forces had been sent to Sudan, he said, where Italian and German special forces were also on standby, with about 30 Egyptian special forces carrying out the operation.

However, a European source cast doubt on the Egyptian version, saying that the operation appeared to be more of “a recovery” than a raid involving fighting.

“The kidnappers were thrown into confusion by the fighting the previous day with the Sudanese army and fled. Maybe one or two shots were fired,” the source said, asking not to be named.

The source was referring to a shootout on Sunday during which Sudanese forces shot dead six kidnappers and arrested two as they were driving through the Sudanese desert without the hostages.

German daily Bild reported that German troops had been standing by to act but did not do so because the kidnappers had already freed the hostages. German special forces’ “intervention was not necessary because the kidnappers let their hostages go and fled when they saw signs of an imminent liberation by the force,” the newspaper said in its edition due out on Tuesday.

Italy’s ANSA news agency also quoted an unnamed official as saying that the rescue took place “without bloodshed because when they were freed by Egyptian security forces the kidnappers had already left.” The group was snatched while on a safari in a lawless area of Egypt’s southwestern desert on September 19.

The kidnappers—whose identities remain unknown—had demanded a ransom but Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said no money had been paid and that Italian special forces had also been involved. “We cannot yet relate the dynamics (of the release) but we can deny with certainty the payment of any ransom,” Frattini said on Italian television from Belgrade.

The releases came after an Egyptian security official said the kidnappers had agreed to let their captives go in return for a ransom, in a deal hammered out before the shootout with Sudanese troops.

“The problem was solved. They had agreed to the ransom. It was merely a matter of receiving the hostages, but then this surprise happened,” the official told AFP, referring to the shooting.

The kidnappers had demanded that Germany take charge of payment of a €6-million ransom to be handed over to the German wife of the tour organiser, one of those snatched.

After their kidnap, the group was first moved across the border to Sudan to the remote mountain region of Jebel Uweinat, a plateau that straddles the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan, before the bandits took them into Chad, according to Sudanese officials.

Sudan says the kidnappers belong to a splinter Darfur rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army-Unity (SLA-Unity). An SLA-Unity spokesman denied his group’s involvement.

Kidnappings of foreigners are rare in Egypt, although in 2001 an armed Egyptian held four German tourists hostage for three days in Luxor, before freeing the hostages unharmed.

Bomb strikes aimed at foreigners have been more common, with attacks between 2004 and 2006 killing dozens of people in popular Red Sea resorts.

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EU delays passport scan system and €7 travel fee until 2023

Two major changes that were due to come into force in 2022 for travellers entering the EU - an enhanced passport scanning system and the introduction of a €7 visa for tourists - have been delayed for a year.

EU delays passport scan system and €7 travel fee until 2023

Although both the EES and ETIAS schemes are still due to be introduced in the European Commission has pushed back the start dates for both until 2023.

It comes amid a chaotic summer for travel in Europe, with airports struggling with staff shortages and strikes while some crossings from the UK to France have been hit by long delays as extra post-Brexit checks are performed during the peak holiday season. 

The two separate changes to travel in the EU and Schengen zone were originally due to come into effect in 2020, but were delayed because of the pandemic. Now the EES system is expected to come into effect in May 2023, while ETIAS will come into effect in November 2023. 

The EES – Entry and Exit System – is essentially enhanced passport scanning at the EU’s borders and means passports will not only be checked for ID and security, but also for entry and exit dates, in effect tightening up enforcement of the ’90 day rule’ that limits the amount of time non-EU citizens can spend in the Bloc without having a visa.

It will not affect non-EU citizens who live in an EU country with a residency permit or visa.

There have been concerns that the longer checks will make transiting the EU’s external borders slower, a particular problem at the UK port of Dover, where the infrastructure is already struggling to cope with enhanced post-Brexit checks of people travelling to France.

You can read a full explanation of EES, what it is and who is affects HERE.

The ETIAS system will apply to all non-EU visitors to an EU country – eg tourists, second-home owners, those making family visits and people doing short-term work.

It will involve visitors registering in advance for a visa and paying a €7 fee. The visa will be valid for three years and can be used for multiple trips – essentially the system is very similar to the ESTA visa required for visitors to the USA. 

Residents of an EU country who have a residency card or visa will not need one.

You can read the full details on ETIAS, how it works and who it affects HERE.

Both systems will apply only to people who do not have citizenship of an EU country – for example Brits, Americans, Australians and Canadians – and will be used only at external EU/Schengen borders, so it won’t be required when travelling between France and Germany, for example.