Mexico FM Heads to Cairo for Answers on Tourist Killings


Mexico's foreign minister was headed to Cairo Tuesday with relatives of tourists mistakenly killed by Egyptian security forces, after her government demanded an urgent investigation into the "unjustified attack".

Claudia Ruiz Massieu flew out of Mexico City late on Monday vowing to seek answers from Egyptian authorities on the attack that killed 12 people including at least two Mexicans.

Egyptian authorities have said the tourists entered a restricted area in the country's 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.

But Ruiz Massieu said before leaving Mexico that six Mexican survivors had told their ambassador they had "suffered an aerial attack with bombs launched by a plane and helicopters" after stopping for lunch by the side of the road.

A Mexican man and woman were confirmed dead, the ambassador said, while six Mexicans were still unaccounted for.

Ten others were wounded in the attack, including six Mexicans who were reported to be in stable condition in hospital.

"We face a terrible loss of human lives and an unjustified attack that obligates us to make the protection of our citizens the priority," she told reporters at Mexico City's international airport before departing with relatives of some of the victims and doctors to care for the wounded.

Ruiz Massieu said she would hold talks with 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 on the ground.

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

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said American embassy staff were checking "reports of a potential U.S. citizen involved".


- Tourism fears - 

The incident was 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 criticized 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 to the area.

A senior tourism ministry official told AFP the incident happened as the tourists were between Cairo and the Bahariya oasis, about 350 kilometers (220 miles) southwest of the capital.

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.


- Major Sinai operation - 

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 widescale 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 on Monday, have died in the operation, the military said.

The country has one of the region's most powerful and well-equipped militaries, which was further boosted by recent deliveries of F-16 warplanes by Washington 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.

After launching brazen attacks targeting security forces in North Sinai over the past two years, militants are increasingly adopting tactics similar to the main IS group in Iraq and Syria.

In July, the group claimed an attack on the Italian consulate in Cairo that killed one civilian, and it also took responsibility for 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 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.