Egyptian forces mistakenly fire on Mexican tourist convoy, killing 12

Egypt said the group was traveling without formal authorization in the western desert near Libya, where security forces are battling Islamic militant groups. 

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS
Four-wheel drive cars cross the sand dunes in the western Egyptian desert and the Bahariya Oasis, southwest of Cairo in this picture taken May 15, 2015.

A mistaken attack by Egyptian security forces on a tourist convoy in the country's western desert near Libya has left a dozen people dead and another 10 injured.

Egypt's interior ministry says that the convoy, made up of four four-wheel-drive vehicles, was traveling in a restricted area without authorization when they came under fire from a joint military and police force that was chasing militants in the region. The BBC reports that an Egyptian Apache helicopter attacked the convoy, which was off the main road at the time, according to the ministry. The group was preparing to camp out in the desert. 

Mexico says at least two of its nationals were killed in the attack. Spanish newspaper El Mundo reports that the tour group was made up largely of Chilean tourists. The Guardian also reports that some of the tourists may have been Spaniards, according to an unconfirmed statement by one of the tour drivers.

Egypt has been struggling with a range of Islamist militant groups operating in its deserts, including forces allied with the so-called Islamic State. The desert where the tourist group was attacked lies along the border with Libya, where one such IS group executed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February.

But the western desert is also a major tourist attraction, home to locales such as the Bahariya Oasis, near where the attack took place. Normally, tour groups are required to coordinate their travels with Egyptian security personnel. A spokesperson for the ministry of tourism told the Associated Press that this group had not done so. The tour company involved "did not have permits and did not inform authorities," she said.

But a tour guide in Egypt told the Guardian that as of late, such coordination is often done informally:

what has been happening the last couple of months - and this was told to me by one of the guides on Bahariya - is that they coordinate with the military personnel there, that they have a group and they are taking them to a specific area in the white desert and the military knows they are going to this area and they just coordinate verbally, without official a permission. But they know that they are there and generally then it is not dangerous to be there. They have been doing that on a friendly basis for the last couple of months. But in this area [where attack happened] it is not possible - this was done only for the white desert.

Many guides work like freelancers and they don’t have companies so they get oral permission from the security personnel because they know them and they trust that they won’t take the tourists to other dangerous areas. [Emphasis by Guardian reporter.] 

The Guardian also notes that there are rumors that the group did have a police escort, as would be typical for a large group of foreigners traveling in Egypt.

Regardless of the status of the tour's arrangements with security, the incident is bound to impact Egypt's critical tourism industry. The Christian Science Monitor noted in June that Egypt saw a record 14 million tourists in 2010, but the fall of President Hosni Mubarak heralded a precipitous drop, with tourism down to 9.5 million in 2013. While tourist numbers began to rebound last year, the surge in Islamist attacks on tourist sites – including a failed attempt to shoot up the Luxor Temple in June – represents a major setback. 

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