After ‘unjustified attack,’ Mexico FM looks for answers in Cairo
CAIRO - Mexico's foreign minister headed to Cairo Tuesday with relatives of tourists mistakenly killed by Egyptian security forces, after demanding an urgent investigation into what she branded the "unjustified attack".
Before leaving, Claudia Ruiz Massieu said she would seek answers on the attack that killed 12 people, including at least two Mexicans. Six other Mexicans are still unaccounted for.
Egypt said the tourists entered a restricted area in the vast Western Desert and were "mistakenly" killed while security forces chased jihadists who had abducted and beheaded an Egyptian they said worked for the army.
Ruiz Massieu said six Mexican survivors told their ambassador they had "suffered an aerial attack with bombs launched by a plane and helicopters" after stopping for a roadside lunch.
A Mexican man and woman were confirmed dead, the ambassador said. Ten other people were wounded, including six Mexicans.
"We face a terrible loss of human lives and an unjustified attack that obligates us to make the protection of our citizens the priority," Ruiz Massieu said before departing accompanied by relatives of those killed and doctors.
The minister is expected in Cairo after midnight (2200 GMT), a Mexican foreign ministry official said.
She said she would talk to top Egyptian officials to "clear up the circumstances of this deplorable event, which has cost the lives of innocent Mexican tourists".
The sister of Luis Barajas Fernandez, one of the two people confirmed killed, said he had been travelling with his wife Carmen Susana Calderon, who was wounded, and a niece.
"We are trying to be calm ahead of what comes next, the repatriation of his remains," Ana Barajas told Milenio television.
"We all have to take the bull by the horns," she said, adding that her brother worked in western Jalisco state, where most of the Mexicans came from.
The incident has proven embarrassing to the Egyptian security forces which regularly claim to have killed dozens of militants in air strikes, tolls that are difficult to independently verify.
Cairo has pledged to create an investigative committee headed by the prime minister, Ruiz Massieu said.
The US State Department said American embassy staff were checking "reports of a potential US citizen involved", without elaborating.
Hassan al-Nahla, the head of the tour guides union in Egypt, said the tourist group had received all the required permits and set off with a police escort from Cairo to Bahariya oasis, roughly 350 kilometres (220 miles) away.
About 80 kilometres from their hotel, they veered two kilometres into the desert to have lunch, he said in a statement.
The place they chose for their picnic was a regular tourist stop, Nahla said later on television.
"I don't blame anyone but I ask who is responsible for coordination, and why was it absent?
"If the military is dealing with terrorists, why were the authorities who issue permits not notified? Why was the tourism ministry not notified so it could coordinate with the tourism companies?"
Nahla said the area they had camped in had never been a restricted zone.
"There was no notification on the ground, and no coordination," he said of the security operation.
The incident is likely to raise further fears for Egypt's vital tourism industry, which has struggled to recover from years of turmoil.
About 10 million tourists visited Egypt in 2014, down sharply from almost 15 million in 2010.
Many Egyptians on social media have criticised the government for suggesting the tourists were at fault for straying into a restricted zone.
The Western Desert is popular with tour groups, but is also a militant hideout, with Western embassies warning against non-essential travel there.
Last month, Egypt's branch of the Islamic State group beheaded a Croatian oil worker who was abducted near Cairo, at the edge of the Western Desert.
IS in Egypt said on Sunday it had "resisted a military operation in the Western Desert" and published pictures of its fighters apparently engaging the military.
Egypt has struggled to quell a jihadist insurgency focused mainly in the Sinai Peninsula in the east since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The military last week launched a wide-scale campaign to uproot militants in the peninsula, claiming to have already killed more than 200 jihadists.
Nine soldiers, including one killed in a roadside bombing Monday, have died in the operation, it said.
Egypt has one of the region's most powerful and well-equipped militaries, which was further boosted by recent deliveries of warplanes from the US and France.
Cairo says hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed, many in attacks claimed by ISIS's Sinai Province affiliate which pledged allegiance to the main group in Iraq and Syria last year.