Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Mistaken identity

A high-level committee is investigating the killing of Mexican tourists in the Western Desert, reports Ahmed Morsy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Security forces mistakenly killed 12 people and injured ten more on Sunday when they opened fire on a safari in the Western Desert. In an official statement the Interior Ministry said the incident happened because security forces mistook the tourist convoy — four SUVs — for terrorists whom they had been pursuing.

“A joint police and army force were pursuing terrorist elements in the Western Desert area of Al-Wahhat when they engaged by mistake with four-wheel drives belonging to Mexican tourists who were present in a restricted area,” said the Interior Ministry statement.

The Ministry of Interior also announced that an investigation into the accidental killings is underway.

A prosecution official told Reuter’s Aswat Masriya website on Monday that seven Mexicans were among the 12 dead.

In a phone call with his Mexican counterpart Claudia Ruis Massieu on Monday Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri expressed condolences for the death of the Mexican tourists. According to an official statement by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid, Shoukri also explained to Massieu the circumstances behind the shooting, including that the Mexican tourists were present in a restricted area.

Shoukri told his Mexican counterpart that the Interior Ministry will conduct an investigation into the accident and the Egyptian government provide support and medical care for the injured.

The Ministry of Tourism confirmed Interior and Foreign Ministry accounts of the incident, repeating that the convoy was in a restricted area in the Western Desert and also adding that the vehicles had not acquired the necessary permits. The Tourism Ministry extended its “sincere condolences” to the families of the victims and promised “maximum punishment” for the tour company that planned the desert safari.

“The tour company did not secure permits and did not inform the authorities,” Rasha Azazi, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Tourism, told AP, adding that any trips to the area of the incident must be cleared by officials. “They were not supposed to be there,” she said.

Hassan Nahla, the head of the Egyptian Tourist Guides Syndicate, has questioned official accounts. Nahla posted a picture of a document he claims is a copy of the tour’s security permit on his Facebook page. He claims the vehicles did have police permits and that the police had inspected all the car licenses before the tourists left their hotel in Cairo.

“Their route took them through several checkpoints. As the convoy was travelling a female tourist with diabetes began to suffer from hunger and couldn’t wait until the group reached its destination to eat. That was when the convoy changed route and went two kilometres off road to prepare lunch. The convoy clearly was unaware it was entering a restricted area despite the fact it contained a low-ranking tourism policeman.”

In a telephone interview with Al-Assema satellite channel one of the convoy’s injured drivers, Sherif Farouk, confirmed Nahla’s account, saying the group had travelled two kilometres off the main road where “the vehicles parked in order to prepare lunch” at which point the convoy came under air attack.

Nahla condemned the “lack of coordination” between the Ministry of Tourism and the Interior Ministry, and questioned why the safari organisers had not been told there had been military operations against militants in the area during the day. He also asked why the convoy had not been given a police escort.

Jorge Alvarez Fuentes, Mexico’s ambassador to Egypt, spoke with the hospitalised Mexicans who told him they had suffered an aerial attack with bombs launched from an airplane and helicopters. They were then evacuated by civilian and military vehicles and transported by ambulance to hospital.

Following the attack Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto expressed his condolences on Twitter. “In a tragic incident in Egypt Mexican tourists were attacked. I deeply regret that people have lost their lives,” said the Mexican president.

“Mexico’s Ambassador to Egypt has been supporting the wounded in hospital. Mexico condemns these acts against our citizens and calls on the government of Egypt for a thorough investigation of what happened,” Peña Nieto said on Twitter.

On Tuesday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called Peña Nieto and expressed his condolences and stressed that Egypt will not hesitate to provide all the forms of aid and assistance to ensure that the injured people receive the necessary health treatment. Al-Sisi also emphasised to his Mexican counterpart that he himself will follow the progress of the investigations.

“The Mexican President expressed his appreciation and gratitude for the interest shown by Al-Sisi. He also praised the efforts of the Egyptian government to help and provide health treatment for the injured people,” Ambassador Alaa Youssef, the presidential spokesperson, said.

On the same day, Shoukri wrote a letter to the Mexican people saying that, “We are now in the investigation phase to uncover the circumstances of what happened in this sad day. The Egyptian authorities are with no doubt committed to disclose the exact details of this tragedy as the sequence of the events is still confusing and unclear. However, I reassure the Mexican people by saying that a neutral investigation is being conducted now under the supervision of the Egyptian Prime Minister himself.” 

Mexican Foreign Minister Ruiz Massieu said during a press conference on Monday that her ministry delivered a diplomatic note to the Egyptian ambassador in which the Mexican government expressed “deep dismay over these deplorable events” and demanded a “swift, exhaustive and thorough investigation”.

“The Mexican government asks that Egyptian authorities give the highest priority and urgency to clearing up this issue,” Massieu said. She said Egyptian officials promised to set up an investigative committee headed by former prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb.

During the press conference, Massieu stated that she will accompany relatives of the Mexican victims on a flight to Cairo.

The Western Desert, a popular site for tourist safaris and camping, has become a volatile area because of its proximity to lawless Libya. Hamada Hashem, a desert guide living in a nearby village who witnessed the strike told AP that the incident appears to be linked to the kidnapping of a local resident, Saleh Qassim, by militants two days earlier.

Hashem said police and local residents, including himself, mounted a rescue operation, but the heavily armed militants escaped. The police then asked the military to help, he said.

Islamic State (IS) circulated photos on Sunday allegedly showing clashes with security forces and what it said was the beheaded body of Qassim who it accused of acting as an informer for the security forces.

 “In a blessed operation facilitated by God the soldiers of the Caliph countered an operation of the Egyptian army by using light weapons and RPGs in the Western Desert,” said the statement accompanying the photos.

In July 2014 the same area was the scene of an attack in which 21 soldiers were killed by arms smugglers.

Terrorist attacks in Egypt have claimed hundreds of lives since July 2013 when Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was ousted. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis — now known as IS — is at the forefront of militant groups launching attacks against security targets.

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