Mexico Tuesday confirmed that eight of its citizens were killed when Egyptian security forces opened fire on a tourist convoy in the country’s Western Desert two days earlier.
The Mexican Foreign Ministry said that consular staff had gained access to the tourists’ bodies and confirmed their identities, and their families had been informed. The ministry had earlier confirmed the deaths of two of the eight.
Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu informed the families of four of the victims in person, on board the government aircraft bringing a Mexican delegation to Cairo.
Egyptian media earlier reported that prosecutors had ordered DNA tests to be carried out on the bodies of victims found at the site of the attack, in which four Egyptians were also killed.
Independent newspaper al-Shorouk reported that the bodies had been consumed by flames. Survivors of the incident had said they had come under attack from aircraft and helicopters while stopping for a meal off the road between Cairo and the Bahareyya oasis, which is popular with tour groups.
According to official accounts, security forces were pursuing a group of militants in the area at the time and mistook the tourist group’s four-wheel drive vehicles for those used by the gunmen, who had earlier clashed with troops.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi telephoned his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto to express his condolences over the deaths, saying he was personally following investigations into the incident.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry published an open letter from Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, also expressing condolences to the people of Mexico.
Egyptians, too, “have experienced first-hand such unfathomable loss” in repeated terrorist attacks, Shoukri wrote, and the country’s security forces were “the most cautious and careful when it comes to preserving the lives of others.”
Shoukri promised that authorities were “unequivocally committed to uncovering the precise details of this tragedy,” adding: “We still do not know if the convoy was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or if some error was involved.”
He condemned what he said were allegations that Egyptian security forces did not follow strict rules of engagement or take necessary precautions during operations.
Ruiz Massieu was expected to arrive in Cairo early Wednesday accompanied by medical staff and forensic experts as well as relatives of the dead and injured tourists.
At least six Mexican survivors of the attack are receiving treatment in a hospital on the outskirts of Cairo. Four other persons were also injured.
Staff at the Dar al-Fouad hospital refused to make any statements, saying they were under strict instructions to provide information only to the Health Ministry and the Mexican embassy.
Egyptian officials have been tight-lipped about the incident, and staff in the tourist industry are also reluctant to discuss the background to it.
Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Rasha El Azayzy on Monday told dpa that the convoy had left the road between Cairo and the Bahareyya oasis and entered a prohibited area in the desert while military operations against militants were taking place nearby.
A tour guide who had assisted the group as they departed from Cairo, and whose uncle, also a guide, was killed in the incident, told Egypt’s CBC television that the off-road spot where the incident took place was not a forbidden area.
The Eygptian Interior Ministry could not be reached on Monday or Tuesday for comment as to why the convoy – which was accompanied by a police officer – had been allowed to proceed along the Bahareyya road while military operations were taking place nearby. El Azayzy said the issue was under investigation.
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 increasing 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.