CAIRO — Egyptian security forces hunting for militants in a remote area of the western desert mistakenly fired on a group of tourists on safari, killing at least 12 people, including two Mexican nationals, officials said Monday.
Egyptian officials said the safari group did not have permission to be in the area, but have not offered a full account of Sunday’s incident, in which another 10 people were wounded. Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto condemned the attack and demanded a full investigation, and his foreign minister said survivors told officials they were fired upon by helicopters and other aircraft.
The incident, among the deadliest involving tourists in Egypt, dealt another blow to the government’s efforts to project stability and revive the tourism industry, a key earner that was hit hard by the years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt has been battling insurgents on the other side of the country, in the northern Sinai Peninsula. In recent months a powerful Islamic State affiliate based there has carried out attacks on the mainland, including the bombing of the Italian Consulate in Cairo and the kidnapping and beheading of a Croatian oil surveyor who was working in the capital.
The Mexican Foreign Ministry confirmed that at least two of the dead were Mexican nationals and said victims were still being identified. Mexican Foreign Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu says Mexicans wounded in the attack told their ambassador they were fired upon by helicopters and aircraft.
Mona el-Bakri, the spokeswoman for the Dar al-Fouad hospital where the wounded were being treated, said two of the seven Mexicans receiving treatment also hold American citizenship. A State Department official said an American woman was injured. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to say more because the woman had not waived her privacy rights.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that a joint military-police force was pursuing “terrorist elements” in the area and fired on four vehicles that turned out to be carrying tourists. The ministry said the victims were Egyptian and Mexican.
Egyptian officials claim the safari convoy had wandered into a restricted area. The tour company involved “did not have permits and did not inform authorities,” Rasha Azazi, a spokeswoman for the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, told The Associated Press, adding that any trips to that area must be cleared by officials. “They were not supposed to be there,” she said, without providing further information about the incident.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir said he was not authorized to speak on the matter, and Interior Ministry officials have not responded to numerous requests for comment.
Hamada Hashem, a desert guide living in a nearby village who witnessed the strike, said it appeared to have been linked to the kidnapping of a local resident named Saleh Qassim Said by militants two days earlier. Hashem said police and local residents, including himself, mounted a rescue operation, but the heavily armed militants drove them off. The police then asked the military to get involved, he said.
On Sunday the Islamic State group’s Egypt affiliate circulated photos purportedly showing clashes with security forces and what it said was the beheaded body of Said, who it accused of being a “spy” for the security services, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based group that monitors militant websites.
Hashem said local security forces advise against going to the desert areas around his village, but they often turn a blind eye, knowing how important the desert safaris are to the local economy.
“The army says don’t go there, but they know that we can’t find anything to eat, so when (a tourist) comes, we resist (the military), say ‘no, we will go,’ and go,” Hashem said. “After what I have seen, I will not spend the night in the desert again.”
Egypt’s western desert has long been a popular safari destination, with tourists flocking to its oases, unique rock formations and white sand dunes.
In recent years, however, it has been the subject of security concerns because of the long, porous border with Libya. Egypt has been flooded with weapons, mostly from Libya, since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and plunged that country into turmoil.
Egyptian security forces frequently target smugglers in the western desert, and in July 2014, gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades attacked a border guard post, killing 21 troops.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
The Associated Press
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