By ASHRAF SWEILAM and AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press
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 after negotiations with security officials and tribal leaders.
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.
The three released captives later appeared at a police station in the northern Sinai city of el-Arish.
In Boston’s Dorchester section, where Louis lives, about 10 family members and friends celebrated the news on the porch of his home, hugging and chanting “hallelujah.”
“We are in joy after receiving such a message and we believe in God and let me tell you, He did not let us down,” Louis’ oldest son, the Rev. Jean Louis, said outside the house before breaking down in tears and being led back inside.
Later, Louis’ children told reporters they were able to talk with their father on a satellite phone from Egypt.
“He just told us that he loved us, that he’s safe, and he’s coming home,” said son Daniel Louis. “He sounds in good spirits.”
“We’re just overwhelmingly happy to hear from my father,” added daughter Debora Louis.
Several joyful parishioners gathered nearby at the Presbyterian chuch where the elder Louis is the pastor.
“We are all so happy and we give all the glory to God. Everyone has been so worried, but we had faith in Christ that God will deliver him,” said parishioner Roseline Inozil-Camille. “We just missed him so much. He’s a man of God.”
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, with Bedouin complaining of discrimination by the government and abuses against them by security forces.
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.
During their captivity, the two Americans and their guide were kept at Abu-Masuh’s home in the harsh mountain terrain of central Sinai, and given tea and food, including at one point a roast lamb, according to Abu-Masuh and the guide, Ragab.
“We were treated just like they treat their own,” Ragab, 28, told AP by phone after their release. “But we were under emotional pressure. Life for the Bedouins is tough.”
He said he and the two Americans spoke a lot with Abu-Masuh about his uncle– who Abu-Masuh says was being held because he refused to pay a bribe– and about the problems of Bedouin in general.
“The issue isn’t Jirmy’s alone, it’s the issue of all Bedouins. Among them are good people who pray. The government needs to resolve their problems. From what I saw they live a tough life and have nothing to lose,” Ragab said.
It’s not clear whether Louis and Alphonse were going to cross into Israel to join the rest of their tour group and continue their planned tour of the Holy Land before returning to the United States at the end of the week, or cut it short. The two Americans declined to talk to the AP by phone.
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 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, earlier told the AP that he had stopped their tour bus and ordered them off, along with Ragab to assist with translation, as a way to force his uncle’s release.
Throughout the ordeal, Louis’ 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.
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.
Batrawy reported from Cairo. AP writers Denise Lavoie in Boston and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)