Mexican foreign minister, relatives head for Egypt
At least two Mexicans were killed and six missing after their convoy came under attack during an operation on Sunday against jihadists in Egypt’s vast Western Desert.
Egypt’s interior ministry said forces “chasing terrorist elements” had “mistakenly” targeted four 4×4 trucks carrying the tourists.
It did not give a breakdown of the casualties but said “the incident led to the death of 12 Mexicans and Egyptians and the wounding of 10 others”.
Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu said late on Monday she was heading to Cairo to seek answers from Egyptian authorities, accompanied by relatives of some of the victims and doctors to care for the wounded.
“We face a terrible loss of human lives and an unjustified attack that obligates us to make the protection of our citizens the priority,” she told reporters at Mexico City’s international airport.
At least two Mexicans were confirmed dead, while another six were wounded and six more unaccounted for, she said.
Ruiz Massieu said she would hold talks with top Egyptian officials in order to “obtain first-hand information that can clear up the circumstances of this deplorable event, which has cost the lives of innocent Mexican tourists”.
The minister earlier said the tour group had arrived in Cairo on September 11 and left two days later for the Bahariya oasis.
She said the six Mexican survivors told the Mexican ambassador they had stopped for a picnic when they “suffered an aerial attack with bombs launched by a plane and helicopters”.
Egypt had pledged to create an investigative committee headed by the prime minister, she said.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said American embassy staff were checking “reports of a potential US citizen involved”.
He refused to be drawn on reports that Apache attack helicopters built and supplied by the US were used in the raid.
Mexico’s envoy in Cairo had visited wounded nationals in the city’s Dar al-Fouad Hospital where they were listed in stable condition, the foreign ministry in Mexico City said.
Relatives identified one of the dead as 41-year-old Rafael Bejarano Rangel, a musician whose mother, Marisela Rangel, was wounded in the attack.
The incident was likely to raise further concerns for Egypt’s vital tourism industry, which has struggled to recover from years of political and economic chaos.
The Western Desert, which extends from the suburbs of Cairo to the border with Libya, is popular with tour groups, but is also a militant hideout, with Western embassies warning against non-essential travel to the area.
A senior tourism ministry official told AFP the incident happened as the tourists were between Cairo and the Bahariya oasis, about 350km south-west of the capital.
Last month, Egypt’s branch of the Islamic State group beheaded a young Croatian in the Western Desert who was working for a French company, and IS has also attacked security forces there several times.
IS in Egypt said in a statement it had “resisted a military operation in the Western Desert” on Sunday, but gave no other details.
Egypt has been struggling to quell a jihadist insurgency since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in 2013, focused mainly on their primary holdout in the Sinai Peninsula in the east.
The country has one of the region’s most powerful and well-equipped militaries, which was further boosted by recent deliveries of F-16 warplanes by Washington and Rafale fighters from France.
The government says hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed, many in attacks claimed by IS’s Sinai Province affiliate.
After launching brazen attacks targeting security forces in North Sinai over the past two years, militants are increasingly adopting tactics similar to the main IS group in Iraq and Syria.
In July, the group claimed an attack on the Italian consulate in Cairo that killed one civilian, and it also took responsibility for the killing of an American employee of oil company Apache last year in the Western Desert.
The beheading in July of Croatian engineer Tomislav Salopek, claimed by IS, appeared aimed at scaring off tourists and foreign employees of Western firms – two cornerstones of an economy battered by years of unrest since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.
About 10-million tourists visited Egypt last year, down sharply from a 2010 figure of almost 15-million.