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Egyptian forces kill Mexican tourists in error

Mexico calls for a thorough investigation after Egyptian security forces mistakenly killed 12 people while pursuing militants
An Egyptian army soldiers stand guard at the site of an attack in al-Wadi al-Gadid, close to the El-Farafrah oasis, in the Western Desert, some 630 kms west of Cairo, in July 2014.(AFP)

Egypt said its security forces killed 12 people, including Mexican tourists, after mistakenly targeting their four-vehicle convoy while pursuing militants in the country's Western Desert.

A joint police and military operation on Sunday "chasing terrorist elements" in Wahat "mistakenly" targeted four pick-up trucks carrying Mexican tourists, the interior ministry said in a statement.

Mexico condemned the incident and called for a thorough investigation.

Egypt did not give an exact breakdown of the casualties but said "the incident led to the death of 12 Mexicans and Egyptians and wounding of 10 others".

"The area they were in was off limits to foreign tourists," it added.

The Mexican foreign ministry said at least two Mexican tourists were killed.

"Mexico condemns these incidents against our citizens and has demanded an exhaustive investigation about what happened from the government of Egypt," President Enrique Pena Nieto said on Twitter.

The Mexican ambassador had visited five other nationals being treated at the Dar al-Fouad Hospital in a western Cairo suburb, where they were listed in stable condition, according to the Mexican foreign ministry.

The ministry gave few details about what happened, saying an "undetermined" number of Mexican tourists were attacked "in circumstances that are still not clear".

"The events of yesterday have saddened us as a nation. There is no precedent, in years, of an event like this one that harms our compatriots," Nieto said on Monday.

"Mexico has demanded from the Egyptian government an exhaustive, deep and swift investigation into what happened," he said at a military event in Mexico City.

Egypt vowed to form an investigative committee that will be headed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab.

Egypt's interior ministry did not indicate whether the tourists were targeted with automatic weapons or aerial bombardment during the operation against militants.

Six Mexican survivors told Mexico's ambassador to Egypt that they had stopped for a meal when they "suffered an aerial attack with bombs launched by a plane and helicopters," Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu told a news conference.

The group had arrived in Cairo on 11 September and left two days later on their way to the Bahariya oasis, Ruiz Massieu said.

The Islamic State (IS) group in Egypt said in a statement that it had "resisted a military operation in the Western Desert" on Sunday.

The vast Western Desert, popular with tourists for its oases and rock formations, is also a militant hideout. Last month the Egyptian branch of IS beheaded a young Croatian there who was working for a French company and have also launched numerous attacks against security forces.

Musician killed

Relatives identified one of the dead as 41-year-old Rafael Bejarano Rangel, a musician whose mother, Marisela Rangel, was wounded in the attack.

Mexico's ambassador to Egypt, Jorge Alvarez Fuentes, gave two different names for the dead, though he said six others remain unaccounted for.

Gabriela Bejarano Rangel, Rafael's sister, told reporters in the Mexican western city of Guadalajara that her mother had organized the trip for a group of friends and that it was "not true that the area of the attack is forbidden."

She said she had traveled there herself twice, and that it would be impossible for a guide to take tourists there without a permit.

"My brother was a musician, a shaman, a man of peace and good. It was his second trip to Egypt. He liked it a lot," she said, adding that she had not spoken to her mother and had only received information from the Jalisco state government.

Rafael financially supported the indigenous Huichol community with proceeds from his concerts, providing it with potable water and helping it build a school.

He helped the Huichol to ensure "that their beautiful culture did not disappear," she said. "He helped a lot of people."

Struggle against IS

Egypt has been struggling to quell a rising insurgency in the Sinai peninsula, their main holdout in the country's east, since the military overthrew elected president Mohamed Morsi in a coup in 2013.

It has one of the region's most powerful and well-equipped militaries and 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 IS which it said killed 56 militants.

The army often reports large death tolls among the insurgents but they are impossible to verify and there has been little noticeable effect on IS'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 IS's Sinai Province affiliate.

After launching spectacular attacks targeting security forces in its North Sinai bastion over the past two years, IS militants in Egypt are now adopting tactics similar to the main IS 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 IS, 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.

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