Mexico condemns killing of Mexican tourists mistaken for militants in Egypt

Four-wheel drive cars cross the sand dunes in the Egyptian western desert and the Bahariya Oasis, southwest of Cairo in picture taken on May 15.
Four-wheel drive cars cross the sand dunes in the Egyptian western desert and the Bahariya Oasis, southwest of Cairo in picture taken on May 15.PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO (REUTERS) - Egyptian security forces killed 12 people and wounded 10 "by accident" when they mistook a convoy of mostly Mexican tourists for a group of militants they were hunting in the desert, the interior ministry said on Monday.

Two Mexicans were killed, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said, though Egyptian security and judicial sources later said that eight Mexicans and four Egyptians were killed, and eight Mexicans and two Egyptians were wounded.

The sister of a Mexican Reiki healer who was among the dead said a relative of the group's tour guide had sent her a list of eight Mexicans killed in the incident.

The group of 22 had parked their four 4x4 vehicles off-road on Sunday for a barbecue near the Bahariya oasis, a tourist site in the western desert, when army aircraft suddenly began shelling them from above, security sources said.

As members of the tourist convoy tried to flee, additional security forces on the ground fired on them.

"Unfortunately we have confirmed that two (Mexicans) lost their lives and six more were wounded," Pena Nieto said, condemning the incident. "Mexico has demanded the Egyptian government conducts a swift, exhaustive investigation."

Pena Nieto said he had been assured Egypt's prime minister would personally spearhead a probe.

Six Mexicans who survived the incident told Mexico's ambassador to Egypt they had been bombed by helicopters and an aircraft while they stopped for a break in the desert.

"They each said separately they had been bombarded from the air by a plane and helicopters," said Massieu. She gave no details about the identities of the tourists, other than that they had arrived in Egypt on Sept 11.

Reuters, however, spoke to Araceli Rangel Davalos, whose nephew Rafael Bejarano was killed and her sister Marisela was wounded in the attack. She said she knew the group's guide, an Egyptology expert whom she identified as Nabil Altawami, well. She had not yet spoken to her sister.

"I have travelled with the guide around 9 times, and he never exposed us to any danger," she told Reuters by telephone."He protected us."

Gabriela Bejarano, Rafael's sister, cast doubt on the Egyptian government's account of the incident.

"I don't think they were mistaken (for militants)," she told local radio in Mexico. "As far as I understand ... they were dining when they came under attack ... They were in a permitted area. On this occasion they didn't stay to camp, because that was what was not permitted."

Egypt is battling an insurgency that gained pace after the military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-2013 after mass protests against his rule.

The insurgency, mounted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's Egyptian affiliate, has killed hundreds of soldiers and police and has started to attack Western targets.

A joint force from the Egyptian police and military had been chasing militants in the country's vast western desert when it came across the tourist convoy, which it mistook for the militants it was pursuing, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Egypt's army spokesperson declined to comment and said only to refer to the interior ministry statement.

ISIS released a statement carried by its supporters on Twitter saying it had repelled an attack by the Egyptian military in the western desert.

Security officials say militants operating from Libya to the west of Egypt have been trying to forge ties with Islamists in the Sinai on the east side of the country.

The vehicles used by the tourist convoy closely resembled those of the militants the joint force had been pursuing, security sources said.

Egyptian tourism federation chairman Elhamy Elzayat said: "The area is a restricted area, and the company made a mistake by taking the tourists to that area without a permit. They must obtain a permit before going there."

Officials at the company that organised the tour were not immediately available for comment.

Despite the apparent danger of the area, there are no warning signs along the desert path, and the attack occurred despite an official police representative accompanying the tourist convoy, said tour guide syndicate leader Hassan al-Nahla.

"Because of this negligence and lack of coordination between the ministry of tourism and ministry of interior, Egypt...will pay the price when this affects tourism," said Mr al-Nahla.

While the Islamist insurgency has been largely based in the Sinai Peninsula, attacks have taken place in Cairo and other cities.