An American woman and her safari guide who were kidnapped in a Ugandan wilderness park and held five days by armed captors were returned unharmed on Sunday after a ransom was paid for their release, authorities said.
Kim Sue Endicott of Southern California and her tour guide, Congolese national Jean-Paul Mirenge Remezo, were freed in a negotiated handover, officials said.
The kidnappers who abducted them at gunpoint in Queen Elizabeth National Park had demanded a $500,000 ransom, but it was not immediately known how much was paid to secure their release or who paid it.
Endicott and Remezo were taken back to a lodge at the park, a spokesman for the Wild Frontiers Uganda safari operation told ABC News.
“Security services have this evening managed to rescue kidnapped citizen Kimberly Sue Endicott and her driver Jean Paul Mirenge [Remezo],” the government of Uganda tweeted.
The tweet expressed appreciation to the Ugandan police and sister security agencies “that led the operation to return Sue and Jean Paul.”
In a statement, the Ugandan government said Endicott and Remezo were “recovered unharmed, in good health” and were in the “safe hands of the joint security team.”
News of the kidnapped victims’ release came after the Federal Bureau of Investigation got involved in the search and a relative of Edincott asked for more help for the U.S. government in finding Endicott, the owner of a Costa Mesa skincare shop.
Details of how Endicott and Remezo were saved were not immediately available.
“The family has done what’s been asked of them to do. I think it’s the government’s time to help us,” Kim Endicott’s cousin, Rich Endicott, a 62-year-old banker from Phoenix, Arizona, told the Associated Press.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed empathy for the Endicott family last week but said the U.S. has a long tradition of not paying a ransom to secure the release of U.S. citizens.
“Please remember that any payment to a terrorist or a terrorist regime gives money so that they can seize more of our people,” Pompeo said after meeting privately with relatives of other U.S. citizens being held captive aboard. “Even a small payment to a group in, say, Africa can facilitate the killing or seizure of tens or even hundreds of others, including Americans or foreign nationals in that region.”
Keith Endicott implored the U.S. government to save his cousin’s life.
“I heard our Secretary of State get on there and say we don’t pay ransom. OK, fine,” Keith Endicott said. “Then get the Navy SEALS, get them on a plane and go save her. Don’t pay ransom, I’m good with that. But he didn’t say any of those things, and maybe they’re doing those things, but who knows.”
On Sunday, there were signs that the search for Endicott and Remezo had intensified in the western region of the 764-square-mile wildlife park bordering the Congo.
An ABC News crew at the park saw Ugandan military aircraft and at least six military helicopters land at a nearby airport, and soldiers in military vehicles speeding in and out of a park entrance.
“We are prepared for it and I think we will be able to resolve it,” Abbas Byakagaba, assistant inspector general of the Ugandan Police, told ABC News, before the release of the abducted victims was announced.
Ephraiam Kamuntu, the Ugandan minister of tourism, went to the park this weekend hoping to reassure the families of Endicott and Remezo that the Uganda government was doing everything it could to find their loved ones.
“If I had lost hope, I wouldn’t be here,” Kamuntu told ABC News before Endicott and Remezo were found. “My hope and my firm belief, my desire and my effort is to restore these people both safe and sound.”
Endicott and Remezo were out on an evening safari expedition with a Canadian couple, Martin and Barbel Jurrius, both 78, when they were accosted on Tuesday between 6 and 7 p.m. by four gunmen, according to a Ugandan police statement.
“The unknown gunmen put the tourists on gunpoint, and grabbed two out of the four tourists, before disappearing with them,” the statement reads.
Once released, Martin and Barbel Jurrius were able to get in contact with a camp manager, who found them safe, police said.
The kidnappers used Endicott’s cell phone to contact authorities and demand a $500,000 random.
“We strongly believe this ransom is the reason behind the kidnap,” the police statement read.
Police said the tourists were in a World Frontiers Safaris Uganda vehicle that was also taken by the kidnappers and found abandoned in the park with the keys missing.
Endicott — whom Ugandan authorities have identified as 35 years old, but whose cousin says is in her late 50s — had gone to Uganda for a safari vacation.
“I know she was planning this trip for a while, because it’s something that she’s always wanted to do,” Pam Lopez, a friend of Endicott, told the Los Angeles Times. “This was always a big trip she wanted to take.”
A Uganda Wildlife Authority spokesperson, Bashir Hangi, told ABC News that the kidnapping was unprecedented.
“This is a one-off incident, it’s an isolated incident. It is not something that happens regularly. It is not something that we are known for,” Hangi said. “It’s very unfortunate, it is regrettable but it happened.”
“Our parks are very safe right now. Tourists are in the parks as I speak. Tourist activities are going on despite the incident. Because we have security in our parks, we maintain national parks and they are all very safe. That’s why you have not had such an incident before, and now that it has happened it has also opened our eyes to do some soul searching and see how can we best improve on the security of our people,” he said.
The last similar incident involving tourists was in 1999, and involved rebels from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hangi said, adding that about 1.4 million tourists now visit Uganda each year.
A U.S. official familiar with the details of U.S. hostage recovery efforts in Uganda told ABC News that Ugandan police have a good handle on the situation, with U.S. officials only providing support at this point.