Egyptian security forces accidentally killed 12 Egyptian and Mexican members of a tour group in the Western Desert after mistaking them for terrorists, the interior ministry said on Monday.
Ten people were injured in the attack, the interior ministry said without elaborating on the details of the attack.
The Egyptian prosecution confirmed that seven of the 12 dead were Mexican nationals and that the other bodies were still at the site of the incident pending inspection, al-Ahram’s Arabic news website reported.
Tourism Minister Khaled Ramy stated that one of those injured was American, according to al-Ahram Arabic website.
The prosecution also said that the bodies’ features were burned, adding that two of the injured were Egyptian officers from the security forces that shot at the victims.
According to a source at the touristic company responsible for the tour group’s trip, four Egyptians were killed and two were injured. The source declined to be named.
Officials cite lack of permit
“A joint police and army force were chasing terrorist elements in the Western Desert area of al-Wahat and they engaged by mistake with four 4-wheel drives belonging to Mexican tourists who were present in a restricted area,” a statement from Egypt’s interior ministry read.
“An inspection team was formed to identify what happened and why the tourist convoy was present in the aforementioned restricted area,” the interior ministry statement added.
The group of tourists and their local guides were staying at a hotel in the touristic area of Bahariya Oasis, around 350km southwest of Cairo. The area is a popular site for camping, safari trips, and hiking.
The resort is located in the vast Western Desert, which occupies much of the western part of Egypt.
The desert, which runs along Egypt’s western borders, has been exploited by Islamist militants due to its proximity to volatile and lawless Libya.
At least 21 Egyptian soldiers were killed in July 2014 when gunmen attacked a military checkpoint in the New Valley Governorate, in the Western Desert.
Rasha Azazi, a spokesperson for the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, told AP that the tour company involved “did not have permits and did not inform authorities.”
She also said that visits to the Farafra area in the White Desert, near to Bahariya Oasis, need to be cleared by officials first.
“They were not supposed to be there,” she said, but could not provide further information on the circumstances of the shooting.
However, the source working at the touristic company which organised the trip, Windows of Egypt, told Ahram Online that the group did have a permit.
“We already had a permit from the tourism police [for the tour] and the group had a police officer accompanying it,” said the source, adding that entering the desert zone does not require an additional military permit.
“All the tourists were Mexicans and they were accompanied by six Egyptians: four drivers and a guide, as well one police officer from the tourism police,” the company source told Ahram Online.
The company source said four Egyptians died and two survived. “One of the drivers and the police officer survived,” he said.
According to a leaked programme, which the source said was accurate, the group travelled from Cairo to Bahariya Oasis, arriving at 8am; once at the oasis they were scheduled to stay at El-Bawity Hotel for a total of two nights. The incident occurred on the afternoon of their first day in the area.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto condemned the killings and called upon the Egyptian government to conduct thorough investigations into the incident.
In a phone call with his Mexican counterpart Claudia Ruis Massieu on Monday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed his condolences for the death of the Mexican tourists.
Shoukry explained to Massieu the circumstances behind the shooting, adding that that the Mexican tourists were present in a restricted area, according to an official statement by the spokesperson for Egypt’s foreign ministry, Ahmed Abo Zeid.
Shoukry told his Mexican counterpart that the Egyptian interior ministry will conduct all necessary investigations to find out the full details of the accident, adding that the Egyptian government will provide all support and medical care for the injured.
Jorge Alvarez Fuentes, Mexico’s ambassador to Egypt, and consular representatives were at the Dar el-Fouad Hospital in suburban Cairo where the injured were transferred, and Alvarez had interviewed five survivors, according to a statement by the Mexican foreign ministry.
Ruiz Massieu is scheduled to give a press conference about the incident on Monday at 1245 GMT, according to AFP.
The minister dispatched to Egypt the director of her ministry’s office for the protection of Mexicans abroad, as well as personnel from other embassies in the region.
By Zeinab El-Gundy, Hana Afifi, Hatem Maher