Egyptian military forces mistakenly attacked a convoy of tourists on Sunday night, leaving at least 12 Mexicans and Egyptians dead and 10 others wounded, the country’s interior ministry has revealed.
Soldiers thought the convoy belonged to an Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State terrorist group against which they had recently been fighting tough battles in the area. Mexico has confirmed that at least two of the dead are Mexican.
Sources from the firm that organized the trip said they had the required permits and that the convoy had not strayed from the designated route
“A group of Egyptian military and police were searching for the terrorist elements in the desert region of Al-Wahat and they opened fire by accident on four four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying Mexican tourists through the restricted area,” the press release issued by the Egyptian government early Monday morning said.
“They should not have been there, they did not have the necessary permits,” added Egyptian Tourism Ministry spokesperson Rasha Azazi.
However, sources from the company that organized the trip told the local press that they did have the required permits and that the convoy had not strayed from the designated route.
The Mexican government was prompt to respond to the news. President Enrique Peña Nieto condemned the incident on Twitter and said he had ordered an “exhaustive investigation” into the events. Mexico would send more diplomatic personnel to Egypt to assist the victims and families, he added.
The area’s beautiful landscape attracts travelers who want to explore beyond the usual routes
Egypt’s Interior Ministry has also announced the creation of a working group to investigate the exact circumstances of the incident.
The Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry said Mexico’s ambassador to Egypt, Jorge Álvarez Fuentes, had met with five Mexican citizens who were injured in the attack and reported that they were in stable condition. The ministry also said it was working to confirm the identities of the dead. According to the press release issued by the Egyptian government, the injured were taken to Dar Al Fouad Hospital in western Cairo.
Several clashes have been reported between Egyptian troops and members of Wilayat Sina (Sinai Province) – as the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis jihadist group renamed itself after swearing loyalty to ISIS last winter – in the area over the last few days. This group was founded in the Sinai Peninsula but has been taking over more territory. In August, it announced it had beheaded Croatian citizen Tomislav Salopek, an oil worker who was captured while traveling back from a plant situated in the desert.
The area of Farafra, which is populated by Bedouin tribes, fell outside of government control after the 2011 revolution and became one of the main transit routes for arms trafficking between Libya and Egypt. In fact, several unofficial sources say arms smugglers were behind the attack on an Egyptian checkpoint in July 2014 that left 21 soldiers dead.
Though it is not one of the most popular tourist sites in the country, the region between the Farafra Oasis and Dakhla has a beautiful landscape that attracts travelers who want to explore beyond the usual routes. Sunday’s incident is another blow to the Egyptian tourism industry, once a cornerstone of the economy. But a long series of violent attacks in the wake of the revolution has prevented the industry from recovering.
English version by Dyane Jean François.