Egypt vows \'transparent\' investigation into Mexican tourist killings

Friday 11/09/2015
Egypt has conveyed its deepest regrets at tragic incident

CAIRO - Egypt on Wednesday pledged a quick and "transparent" probe into the accidental killing of eight Mexican tourists by security forces, as Mexico's foreign minister visited the country seeking answers.
The incident on Sunday, in which the tourists in the Western Desert were hit by an air strike after security forces mistook them for militants, has proven embarrassing to Egypt which relies heavily on tourism revenues.
Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu visited survivors Wednesday at a Cairo hospital, later meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and her counterpart Sameh Shoukry.
Reading out a joint statement at a press conference with Ruiz Massieu, Shoukry said Egypt had committed "to carry out a prompt, thorough and transparent investigation" into the deaths.
Ruiz Massieu, who had earlier called for an exhaustive probe into the incident, told reporters her government agreed to wait for the results of the investigation.
"The Egyptian government has conveyed its deepest regrets at the tragic incident and we have agreed to wait until the investigation is complete to know its findings," she said.
The Mexicans have said their tour group came under aerial attack in what the Egyptian interior ministry described as a botched operation against militants in the Western Desert. Four Egyptians were also killed.
The Egyptian government has said guides took the tourists into a restricted zone, an accusation denied by a union representing the guides.
Sisi called Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Tuesday to express his "most sincere condolences" over the incident, the Mexican leader's office said in a statement.
"President Pena Nieto expressed his deep dismay and sadness over the death of our citizens, as well as the pain and outrage that these unprecedented events have caused within Mexican society," the statement said.
In Mexico, details of the victims began to emerge from families and friends.
They reportedly included 41-year-old musician Rafael Bejarano Rangel, whose mother was wounded in the strike, as well as former university professor Luis Barajas Fernandez and model agency head Queta Rojas.
A former lawmaker, Maria Elena Cruz Munoz, was also feared dead.
Egypt said the tourists entered a restricted area in the Western Desert and were "mistakenly" killed as security forces chased jihadists who had abducted and beheaded an Egyptian.
Egyptian security forces regularly claim to have killed dozens of militants in air strikes, though the tolls are difficult to independently verify.
Hassan al-Nahla, the head of Egypt's tour guides union, said the tourist group had received all the required permits and set off with a police escort from Cairo to the Bahariya oasis, roughly 350 kilometres (220 miles) away.
About 80 kilometres from their hotel, they veered two kilometres into the desert for lunch, he said.
The place they chose for their picnic was a regular tourist stop, Nahla said.
"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 where they stopped had never been a restricted zone.
"There was no notification on the ground, and no coordination," he said of the security operation.
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 (ISIS) group, which calls itself Sinai Province, beheaded a Croatian oil worker, who was abducted near Cairo, at the edge of the Western Desert.
ISIS 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.
The incident is likely to raise further fears for Egypt's vital tourism industry, which has struggled to recover from years of turmoil.
Many Egyptians on social media have criticised the government for suggesting the tourists were at fault for straying into a restricted zone.
The country 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.
Eleven soldiers have died in the operation, it said on Tuesday.
Cairo says hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed, many in attacks claimed by Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to ISIS last year.