The mistaken airstrike by the Egyptian military that killed a dozen people on a Mexican tourist trip in the Western Desert hit at a picnic in midday, witnesses said Monday, raising new questions about both the extent of the error and the official explanations.
CAIRO — The convoy of four SUVs full of Mexican tourists was about three hours southwest of Cairo on a typical adventure trip through the White Desert, an otherworldly landscape of monumental chalk-rock formations. Around midday Sunday, a diabetic passenger complained that she needed to eat.
So, with the blessing of their police escort, and the apparent added security of an Apache military helicopter buzzing on the horizon, the group pulled off for a picnic, according to witnesses and others briefed on the trip.
Then the helicopter opened fire, killing at least a dozen people — including at least two Mexicans — while wounding a tourist police officer and at least nine others.
Some were gunned down as they tried to flee toward the top of a sand dune, said Essam Monem, a resident who arrived that night and saw the bodies sprawled in the sand.
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The helicopter crew had mistaken the lunching tourists for a camp of Islamist extremists operating in the area, the Interior Ministry said Monday.
The error killed more tourists than any terrorist attack in recent years, raising questions about both the competence of Egypt’s security forces and the prevalence of the extremists they were trying to hunt.
The deadly mistake is the latest setback facing President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s efforts to restore stability, two years after the military takeover that brought him to power.
The disaster threatens to undermine a nascent recovery in the vital tourist industry, points to a failure to re-establish public security that has driven away investors, and embarrasses el-Sissi just days after he sought a new beginning by firing his prime minister and Cabinet.
“What we saw was not just the lack of training of the military forces but also their desperation,” said Mokhtar Awad, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, noting that Islamic State group fighters in the area had also released photographs Sunday that appeared to show they had beaten an army unit in battle earlier that day.
“It tells you how chaotic the situation is,” Awad said, “if they feel so desperate to put an end to this that they end up taking out what we gather is the first thing they see.”
Initial reports Sunday from Egyptian officials said the error took place late at night, when mistaking Mexican tourists for jihadis might be less hard to imagine.
In its statement Monday, the Interior Ministry sought instead to blame the tour guide — who was killed in the attack — by suggesting that the convoy had entered a “banned area” without permission.
A Mexican tourist group “was present in the same banned area” as a group of “terrorist elements” that the military and police forces had been chasing, the ministry’s statement said. It also said a team had been formed to look into “the accident and the justifications for the presence of the tourist group in the aforementioned banned area.”
But the official union of tour guides and friends of the trip’s leader circulated photographs of the convoy’s official permit on the Internet.
Union officials and friends of the guide said the tour had stuck to a common, widely used tourist route.
The tour had passed through several police checkpoints and had moved only with the approval of its tourist police escort.
The convoy had “no information that this region is banned, no warning signs, and no instructions from checkpoints on the road, or the Tourism and Antiquities policeman present with them,” Hassan el-Nahla, the chairman of the General Union of Tourist Guides, said in a statement.
“Egypt will pay the price of the impact of this incident on the tourism industry,” he said.
Although the helicopter that conducted the attack was military, a spokesman for the Egyptian armed forces deflected responsibility. “When it comes to tourists, it is a Ministry of Interior issue, not ours,” said the spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohamed Samir.
“This incident has nothing to do with the army, even if the army and police carried out the operation together,” he said. “This is the system of this country, and you don’t have the right to question it.”
In Mexico, Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu said two Mexican citizens had been killed and six wounded. Reports in the Egyptian state media had initially said eight Mexicans had died, and Mexico officials said later they did not know the fates of six Mexicans on the trip.
One of the dead was identified in Mexico news reports as Rafael Jos Bejarano Rangel, 41, a musician who studied indigenous cultures.
Some news reports Monday said two of the Mexican wounded were dual citizens of the United States, but that could not be confirmed.
In a formal diplomatic note to the Egyptian ambassador, Mexico “expressed its deep consternation for these deplorable events and demanded that an expedited, exhaustive and thorough investigation is carried out.”