AFP, CAIRO - A group of European tourists and their Egyptian guides snatched by armed bandits in a remote desert 10 days ago have been freed unharmed and a number of kidnappers killed, officials said on Monday.
"The hostages have been freed and are in good health. They are being brought to Cairo airport," Egyptian state television quoted an official as saying.
Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi said "half of the kidnappers were eliminated," the official MENA news agency reported.
An Egyptian security official said Egyptian special forces belonging to the elite Lightning Brigade were involved in the release.
"Egyptian special forces freed them in an operation inside Chadian territory close to the Sudanese border," he told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The kidnappers -- whose identities remain unknown -- had demanded a ransom but the television quoted an official as saying no money had been paid.
The 19 hostages -- five Germans, five Italians, a Romanian and eight Egyptian drivers and tour guides -- were snatched while on a safari in a lawless area of Egypt's southwestern desert on September 19.
Security officials said they were being being flown aboard a military helicopter to Al-Maza military airport, which is next to Cairo's international airport, and that a press conference would be held.
"They'll be here within two hours," tourism ministry spokeswoman Omayma el-Huseini told AFP.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini confirmed the release, telling AFP that the Italians "are in a good shape, they are on their way to Cairo, and then from Cairo to Italy."
Frattini said he was "very grateful to all those who have cooperated with Italian authorities and in particular, to the Egyptian authorities".
Bucharest confirmed the release in a foreign ministry statement, saying more details would be provided later.
However, a German foreign ministry spokesman did not confirm the release, saying the news should be "treated with caution."
Their release came after an Egyptian security official said kidnappers had agreed to let their captives go in return for a ransom, in a deal hammered out before a deadly 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.
A Sudanese official told AFP the bandits had moved the hostages to a hideout in Chad, although Ndjamena said it had "noticed nothing on Chadian national territory".
A Sudanese army spokesman said his forces were not involved in the release.
"We had nothing to do with the hostages, we were only dealing with the kidnappers who have been killed," Al-Sawarmi al-Islam Khaled told AFP.
The kidnappers had demanded that Germany take charge of payment of a six-million-euro ransom to be handed over to the German wife of the tour organiser, one of those snatched.
Egypt's independent Al-Masry Al-Yom newspaper had quoted a German negotiator as saying the release had been delayed because the kidnappers were seeking assurances they would not be arrested.
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, but warned that the hostages might be harmed if force were used against the bandits.
Kidnappings of foreigners are extremely rare in Egypt, although in 2001 an armed Egyptian held four German tourists hostage for three days in Luxor, demanding that his estranged wife bring his two sons back from Germany. He freed the hostages unharmed.
Bomb attacks aimed at foreigners have been more common, with the most recent occurring between 2004 and 2006 in popular Red Sea resorts, killing dozens of people.