EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian security officials said Monday that they will not give in to the demands of a Bedouin man who took hostage two Americans and their local translator, now entering their fourth day in captivity.
Boston-area residents Pentecostal Rev. Michel Louis, 61, and 39-year-old Lissa Alphonse were taken off a bus Friday with their Egyptian tour guide on a road in the Sinai Peninsula. Their captor wants the security forces to free a detained relative.
The two Americans were on a Holy Land tour heading from Cairo to the sixth-century St. Catherine's Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai where the Old Testament says Moses received the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.
The route is frequently targeted by Bedouins who abduct tourists to pressure police to meet their demands, usually the release of detainees they say have been unjustly arrested. In past cases, tourists have not been physically harmed.
The 32-year-old hostage-taker, Jimmy Abu-Masuh, told The Associated Press by telephone that the hostages were being fed, offered tea and coffee and sleeping in his home. He said he would not release them until there is a swap for his detained uncle.
The translator, Haytham Ragab, 28, told the AP on Friday from the captor's phone that they had been fed a roast lamb. He confirmed they were sleeping in Abu-Masuh's home deep in the harsh mountain terrain of central Sinai.
The Arab Bedouins of the sparsely populated peninsula have long-running tensions with the government in Cairo, and with the security forces in particular. They complain of state discrimination in the development of their region.
The smuggling of drugs and of migrants is endemic to the region. Islamist militants waged a low-level insurgency against the regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak in the 1980s and 1990s, targeting security forces and foreign tourists. Well over 1,000 people were killed.
Bedouin and Egyptian rights groups say the security forces are responsible for many abuses in the peninsula. 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.
Egyptian security officials are in a tight spot with the latest abduction, apparently unwilling for the moment to attempt to free the hostages by force and risk a violent confrontation with the captor's Tarbeen tribe. Any escalation could lead to more abductions along the popular tourist route.
Abu-Masuh has complained that the security forces' treatment of Bedouins has not improved, despite Mubarak's overthrow in a 2011 uprising.
He reiterated on Monday his earlier ultimatum: he will not free the Americans until Egyptian authorities free his 62-year-old uncle, who raised him after his father died and who he says suffers from back and heart problems as well as diabetes.
Egyptian officials said they will not release the uncle, who was taken into custody last week. Officials said Abu-Masuh's uncle was ordered detained on Saturday for 15 days pending investigation for alleged possession of drugs. Abu-Masuh says his uncle is being held for refusing to pay police a bribe.
The officials spoke Monday on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.
Abu-Masuh said two intelligence officials met him Saturday to negotiate the captives' release. Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton brought up the case of the two kidnapped Americans when she met with her Egyptian counterpart in Cairo on Saturday.
Rev. Louis, who is diabetic, left his medicine on the bus and security officials will have to help with getting it, Abu-Masuh said. He said Michel was tired and was sleeping a lot. He would not allow the AP to talk with the Americans.
Louis' son said Sunday his father had natural medicine for his diabetes when he was taken, but he had no other information about his condition.
The son, the Rev. Jean Louis, spoke to reporters after a church service in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood to pray for the captives.
Batrawy reported from Cairo and Bizuayehu Tefsaye contributed reporting from Boston, Massachusetts.