KHARTOUM – The Sudanese army said it had killed the leader of a group that kidnapped 11 Western tourists and eight Egyptians on Sunday and said the hostages were now in Chad, the state-run SUNA news agency reported.

The agency quoted a statement from the army as saying one of its units killed five other gunmen and detained two in a gun battle near the Egyptian and Libyan border.

The army said “preliminary information” indicated the 19 hostages were inside Chad under the protection of 30 armed men. There was no comment from the Chadian government.

The army unit seized a white vehicle belonging to an Egyptian tourism company, along with papers linking the gunmen with the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), a Darfur rebel group, the statement said, according to SUNA.

Several Darfur rebel groups fight under the name of SLA. It was not clear which faction the Sudanese army was referring to.

Khartoum and the Darfurian rebel groups routinely trade accusations of bombings and acts of aggression in Darfur, a war-ravaged area in western Sudan.

Egypt has identified the tourists as five Germans, five Italians and one Romanian. The eight Egyptians include the owner of the tour company whose German wife has been in contact with the kidnappers by satellite phone, according to Egyptian officials.

The Egyptian government and many political analysts have largely ruled out any political motivation behind the kidnapping. Egyptian officials say the kidnappers have demanded a ransom from the German government. One security official put the figure at $6 million euros.

Egypt said this month four masked kidnappers seized the hostages while they were on safari in a remote desert area and took them across the border into Sudan. An Egyptian government official said on Saturday the hostages were inside Sudan.

The Sudanese army, however, said its unit searched for the hostages in the border area with Egypt from Thursday to Sunday but only found empty food cans and “traces of their vehicles in the direction of the Libyan border,” the statement said.

On its way back inside Sudan, the army unit encountered a speeding white vehicle whose passengers refused to stop and opened fire at the Sudanese soldiers, the statement said.

“As a result of the clash, six of the (gunmen) were killed including Bakhit the leader of the kidnappers who is a Chadian national and the capture of two others, one of them Sudanese.”

The statement said the army unit also seized firearms and a rocket-propelled grenade.

A spokesman for the SLA-Unity faction Mahgoub Hussein denied any involvement in the kidnapping.

“The Unity movement emphasizes that it does not have any connection with the kidnapping and no individual members within the kidnapping cell,” he said in a statement. Another SLA faction, headed by Abdel Wahed al-Nur, also denied any involvement.

Hussein told Reuters Unity members in north Darfur, operating close to its borders with Libya and Chad, had reported no Sudanese army activity all day.

But he said two rival groups from another faction of the SLA, one led by Minni Arcua Minnawi, had been fighting each other around the same area on Saturday and Sunday.

Officials from the SLA faction headed by Minnawi, the only rebel leader to sign a peace deal with the Khartoum government in 2006, were not available for comment.