EL-ARISH, Egypt — 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.
Bedouins have long complained of discrimination and random arrests by the government, and tensions have intensified in recent months along with a general deterioration of security in the region including attacks on police stations, armed militias roving the streets and attacks on pipelines carrying gas to Jordan and Israel.
Naguib said he had agreed to look into the demands but provided no other details.
Katharina Gollner-Sweet, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, confirmed that two American women had been kidnapped but gave no further details, citing privacy concerns.
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 has assumed power 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.