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Mexico heads to Cairo for answers on tourist killings

15 September 2015, 16:34

Cairo - Mexico's foreign minister was 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".

Claudia Ruiz Massieu flew out of Mexico late Monday vowing to 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 Mexico with relatives of those killed and doctors.

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 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.

Egypt had pledged to create an investigative committee headed by the prime minister, Ruiz Massieu said.

The State Department said US embassy staff were checking "reports of a potential US citizen involved," without elaborating.

Hassan al-Nahla, the head of the union for tour guides 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).

About 80 kilometres from their hotel, they veered two kilometres into the desert to have lunch after one tourist said she suffered low blood sugar and needed food, he said in a statement.

The scenic place they chose to have a picnic was a regular stop for tourists, 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.

Nahla told AFP that 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 military and police operation in the area.

The incident is likely to raise further fears for Egypt's vital tourism industry, which has struggled to recover from years of political and economic chaos.

About 10 million tourists visited Egypt in 2014, down sharply from a 2010 figure of almost 15 million.

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, which extends from the suburbs of Cairo to the border with Libya, 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 worker for a French oil company who was abducted near Cairo, at the edge of the Western Desert.

IS in Egypt said in a statement on Sunday it had "resisted a military operation in the Western Desert".

The group published pictures of its fighters apparently engaging the military and a photograph of the beheaded Egyptian.

Egypt has been struggling to quell a jihadist insurgency since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, focused mainly on their primary holdout in the Sinai Peninsula in the east.

The military launched last week 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 F-16 warplanes from the US and Rafale fighters from France.

The government says hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed, many in attacks claimed by IS's Sinai Province affiliate which pledged allegiance to the main group in Iraq and Syria last year.

In July, it claimed an attack on the Italian consulate in Cairo that killed one civilian. It also took responsibility for the killing of an American oil worker last year in the Western Desert.

The beheading in July of Croatian engineer Tomislav Salopek, claimed by IS, appeared aimed at scaring off tourists and foreign employees of Western firms -- two cornerstones of an economy battered by years of unrest since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

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