***UPDATE: The two American tourists were released after several hours of negotiations with tribal leaders in the Sinai Peninsula, the region's security chief said Friday afternoon.
Two tourists from the U.S. were kidnapped at gunpoint from a bus in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula Friday in an apparent attempt to hold them for ransom.
The brazen daylight abduction occurred near St. Catherine's Monastery along a busy highway, according to the region's security chief. The tourists were headed to the popular Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The American's abductors drove a sedan and a pickup truck and sped away into the mountains after seizing the two women, Maj. Gen Mohammed Naguib, head of security for southern Sinai, said Friday.
Believed to be Bedouin men, the attackers demanded the release of a number of fellow tribesmen arrested this week on drug trafficking and robbery charges. Tribal leaders were mediating efforts to free the two women, ages 60 and 65, and their Egyptian guide, according to The Associated Press.
Friday's incident is just the latest blow to Egypt's beleaguered tourism industry, a vital part of the economy. The industry took a major hit following last year's uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.
South Sinai's Red Sea coast is a major tourism hub for Egypt, but security in the isolated desert region has deteriorated since Mubarak was ousted in February. Egypt as a whole has faced a surge in crime since the uprising that eliminated Mubarak's police state, which kept tight control of the Arab world's largest nation.
Tensions across Egypt have spiked since a soccer riot Wednesday left at least 74 people dead. The riot has turned into a political crisis as protesters accuse the police of standing by and allowing the bloodshed. Protesters clashed with police officers in the streets of Cairo Thursday night into Friday morning and four additional deaths were reported.
The Americans' bus was reportedly carrying three other people of unknown nationality who were left behind.
Egyptian authorities have confirmed to us that two tourists, who they say are American citizens, have been kidnapped in Sinai, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said in a statement. We are trying to confirm their citizenship and in the meantime are working closely with the Egyptian authorities to do everything possible to ensure the tourists' safety.
The generally poor and disaffected Bedouin have long complained of random arrests and discrimination by the government. Tensions have increased in recent months with attacks on police stations, armed militias roving the streets, and attacks on pipelines carrying gas to Jordan and Israel.
Islamic militants also seized 29 Chinese factory workers after forcing them off a bus in another part of the peninsula earlier this week. They were released the next day. A French tourist was killed during a shooting in Sharm el-Sheikh last weekend, raising even more concerns over security in the popular resort area.
Last month, Bedouin seized 50 German and British tourists whose coach accidentally crossed a roadblock. They were also on a trip to the monastery, but were released a few hours later.
Tourism Minister Mounir Abdel-Nour said the number of tourists who came to Egypt in 2011 dropped to 9.8 million from 14.7 million the previous year, with revenues down by nearly $4 billion.