Egyptian forces kill tourists by mistake

12 people die when their convoy is targeted by security forces hunting militants in desert

CAIRO • Egypt said yesterday that its security forces had killed 12 people, including Mexican tourists, after mistakenly targeting their four-vehicle convoy while pursuing militants in the country's Western Desert.

The tourists were mistakenly killed by a "joint force from the police and armed forces" who were pursuing "terrorist elements" in an area of the desert, according to a brief statement posted on the Facebook page of Egypt's Interior Ministry. The incident happened around midnight on Sunday, security officials said yesterday.

The tourists were travelling in a group of sport utility vehicles in an area about 50km from Bahariya oasis, security officials said. The vast Western Desert, popular with tourists for its oases and rock formations, is also a militant hideout. The Bahariya oasis, a verdant desert outpost, is about 370km south of Cairo and is a regular stop for groups on desert tours.

The ministry did not indicate whether the tourists were targeted with automatic weapons or aerial bombardment.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry said at least two Mexican tourists were killed. "Mexico condemns these incidents against our citizens and has demanded an exhaustive investigation about what happened from the government of Egypt," President Enrique Pena Nieto said on Twitter.

The Mexican ambassador visited five other nationals being treated in a Cairo hospital, where they were listed in stable condition.

Egypt did not give a breakdown of the casualties but said "the incident led to the death of 12 Mexicans and Egyptians and wounding of 10 others", adding that an "undetermined" number of Mexican tourists were attacked "in circumstances that are still not clear".

"The area they were in was off limits to foreign tourists," the Interior Ministry said.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group in Egypt said in a statement that it had "resisted a military operation in the Western Desert" on Sunday.

Last month, ISIS beheaded a young Croatian man who was working for a French company in the area and has also launched numerous attacks against security forces there.

Egypt has been struggling to quell a militant insurgency in the Sinai peninsula in the east since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in 2013.

Last week, the army launched an operation in the Sinai area against ISIS, in which it said 56 militants were killed. The army often reports large death tolls among the insurgents but they are impossible to verify and there has been little noticeable effect on ISIS' ability to carry out deadly attacks.

The government says hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed, many of them in attacks claimed by ISIS.

After launching spectacular attacks against security forces in its north Sinai bastion over the past two years, ISIS in Egypt is now adopting tactics similar to those of the ISIS group in Iraq and Syria - abducting and beheading foreigners.

In July, the group claimed the bombing of the Italian consulate in Cairo in which one civilian was killed, and it also claimed the killing of an American employee of oil company Apache in the Western Desert last year.

The latest incident comes as Egypt is seeking to revive its tourism industry, which is still reeling from the chaos that accompanied the 2011 uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Tourism is a major source of foreign currency for Egypt, generating US$7.3 billion (S$10.3 billion) in the year to June 30.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Egyptian forces kill tourists by mistake'. Print Edition | Subscribe