A group of European tourists and their guides snatched by armed bandits in a remote desert 10 days ago were freed unharmed in a pre-dawn raid by Egyptian special forces, officials in Egypt said.
The group of 19 hostages -- five Germans, five Italians, a Romanian and eight Egyptian drivers and tour guides -- were flown Monday into Cairo aboard an Egyptian military plane and taken for medical checks, state television said.
The freed hostages, apparently in good health, were greeted and handed flowers as they walked unassisted across the tarmac.
The five Italians arrived back home early Tuesday in the northern Italian city of Turin, Radio Rai reported.
The ex-hostages said they were not mistreated by their captors but that they were afraid and at one point lost all hope, the ANSA news agency reported.
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 six-million-euro 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.