Mexico demands probe amid dispute over blame for Egypt tourist deaths

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Mexico Monday demanded a swift investigation into the mistaken killing by security forces of a number of its citizens in Egypt’s Western Desert, while Egyptian officials and tourism workers traded blame over the incident.

Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu said at least two Mexican citizens were killed on Sunday when their group was fired on by Egyptian helicopters and a warplane after they made “a halt to rest and eat.”

Egyptian authorities said 12 people, including eight Mexicans, were killed after a tourist convoy went off a main road into a restricted area while military operations against suspected terrorists were taking place nearby.

Egyptian Tourism Ministry spokeswomen Rasha El Azayzy said the group was travelling from Cairo to a hotel in the Bahareyya oasis, 250 kilometres to the south-west.

The tourists were accompanied by a security escort but diverted from the main road before coming under attack, El Azayzy said.

The head of Egypt’s tour guides union, Hassan al-Nahla, blamed poor coordination with the security forces for the deaths of the tourists, saying they had passed through checkpoints without any warning and were accompanied by a tourism police officer.

The place where they came under attack was a popular and scenic stopping point two kilometres off the desert road, al-Nahla told broadcaster Lamis al-Hadidi on Egyptian CBC television: “As a guide, if I’m passing by there I have to stop … so that people can take photographs.”

A tour guide who had assisted the group as they departed from Cairo, and whose uncle, also a guide, was killed in the incident, angrily denied that they had entered a forbidden area.

“They didn’t enter a prohibited area, because we didn’t know that it was a prohibited area,” Muhammad Salamah told al-Hadidi’s popular evening talk show.

El Azayzy told dpa that investigations were under way to establish why the group had been allowed to proceed along the road when military operations were taking place in the area.

The Mexican government confirmed a further six Mexican citizens were wounded and in a stable condition. The Mexican Foreign Ministry was investigating whether any further nationals were among the victims.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri telephoned Massieu to express his condolences and assured her that the Egyptian Interior Ministry was investigating the incident, his spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said.

The Interior Ministry said earlier in the day that security forces had opened fire by mistake on the vehicles carrying the tourists.

Soldiers had been pursuing terrorists in a prohibited area when they shot at the convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles used by the tourists, the ministry said.

The Egyptian military referred queries to the Interior Ministry, which could not be reached for further comment.

The US State Department would not confirm reports that a US citizen or citizens may have been among the wounded or if US-made Apache helicopters sold to the Egyptian military were involved in the attack.

An employee of a Bahareyya hotel said the victims had been touring the area prior to checking in at the hotel.

The area is popular with tourists for its desert scenery and oases, but several embassies currently warn against trips there because of the presence of militants, including the Egyptian branch of Islamic State.

The hotel’s manager and two of its drivers were among the dead, said the employee, who asked not to be named.

“Some of the drivers have been working in the area for over 20 years,” the employee told dpa. “There’s no way they would have entered restricted areas.”

State-run newspaper Al Ahram reported an exchange of fire between security troops and suspected terrorists in the area late Sunday.

It said seven “terrorists” were killed in the shootout, according to an unnamed security official.

On Sunday, a statement published online in the name of Islamic State’s Egyptian branch said it had repulsed an army attack in the Western Desert and beheaded a “spy for the apostate Egyptian army.”

It published photographs showing militants with four-wheel-drive vehicles firing from behind sand dunes.

Egyptian security forces have been the target of militant attacks since the army’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi following massive street protests against his rule.

In July last year, 22 troops were killed in an attack on a checkpoint near the Farafra oasis, south of Bahareyya.

The Western Desert extends to Egypt’s 1,115 kilometre-long border with Libya, which continues to be roiled by civil war.

Arms destined for Egyptian militants are thought to be frequently smuggled across that border.

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