Egypt said its security forces killed 12 people, including Mexican tourists, on Sunday after mistakenly targeting their four-vehicle convoy while chasing jihadists in the country’s Western Desert.
The vast region, popular with tourists for its oases and rock formations, is also a militant hideout. Last month the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group beheaded a young Croatian there who was working for a French company and have also launched numerous attacks against security forces.
A joint police and military operation Sunday “chasing terrorist elements” in Wahat in the Western Desert “mistakenly” targeted four pick-up trucks carrying Mexican tourists, the interior ministry said in a statement.
“The incident led to the death of 12 Mexicans and Egyptians and wounding of 10 others,” it said.
“The area they were in was off limits to foreign tourists,” it said.
Egypt did not give a breakdown of the casualties but the Mexican foreign ministry said at least two Mexican tourists were killed.
“For the moment, we regrettably confirm the death of two Mexican nationals in this incident,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that five other Mexicans were in stable condition at a hospital in Cairo.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto condemned the attack and demanded an investigation.
“Mexico condemns these incidents against our citizens and has demanded an exhaustive investigation about what happened from the government of Egypt,” he said on Twitter.
Egypt’s interior ministry did not indicate whether the tourists were targeted with automatic weapons or aerial bombardment. The Islamic State group in Egypt said in a statement that it had “resisted a military operation in the Western Desert” on Sunday.
Struggle against jihadists
The country has been struggling to quell a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula, their main holdout in the country’s east, since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has one of the region’s most powerful and well-equipped militaries. It was further boosted by recent deliveries of F-16 warplanes by Washington and Rafale fighter jets from France.
Last week the army launched an operation in the Sinai area against the Islamic State group which it said killed 56 jihadists.
The army often reports large death tolls among the insurgents but they are impossible to verify and there has been little noticeable effect on Islamic State group’s ability to carry out deadly attacks on the security forces.
The government says hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed, many of them in attacks claimed by Islamic State group’s Sinai Province affiliate.
After launching spectacular attacks targeting security forces in its North Sinai bastion over the past two years, Islamic State militants in Egypt are now adopting tactics similar to the main Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria – abducting and beheading foreigners.
In July the group claimed the bombing of the Italian consulate in Cairo in which one civilian was killed, and it also claimed the killing of an American employee of oil company Apache last year in the Western Desert.
The beheading in July of Croatian engineer Tomislav Salopek, claimed by the Islamic State group, appeared aimed at threatening tourists and foreign employees of Western firms — two cornerstones of an economy battered by years of political unrest since the 2011 uprising that ousted then-president Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt’s economy is traditionally driven by tourism but arrivals have plummeted as the country tries to recover from years of political and economic chaos.
About 10 million tourists visited in 2014, down sharply from a 2010 figure of almost 15 million people who visited the country with its archaeological sites and Red Sea resorts.