CAIRO — 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 the middle of the day, witnesses said Monday, raising new questions about both the extent of the error and the official explanations.
The convoy of four sport utility vehicles was about three hours southwest of Cairo on a typical tourist trip through the White Desert, an otherworldly Western Desert area of chalk rocks, at around midday on Sunday when a diabetic passenger complained that she needed to eat, according to a tour-guide official, witnesses and others briefed on the events.
So, with the blessing of their police escort and the added security of an Apache military helicopter buzzing on the horizon, the Egyptian guide and his four drivers pulled about a mile off the road to prepare a meal.
It was then that the helicopter opened fire, killing at least a dozen people — including at least two visiting Mexicans — while wounding a tourist policeman and at least 10 others.
Some were gunned down as they tried to flee toward the top of a nearby sand dune, said Essam Monem, a resident of the area who arrived that night and saw the bodies in the sand.
The helicopter crew had mistaken the tourist picnic for a camp of Islamist militants operating in the area, the Interior Ministry said in a statement early Monday. But the accident has nonetheless killed more tourists than any terrorist attack in recent years. Analysts say it has threatened to do new damage to Egypt’s already crippled tourist industry by raising questions about both the competence of the security forces and the prevalence of the militants they were attempting to hunt.
“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 Center for American Progress who tracks Egyptian militant groups, noting that Islamic State militants in the area had also released photographs on Sunday that appeared to show they had beaten back an army unit in battle earlier the same day.
“It tells you how chaotic the situation is,” he 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 night from Egyptian security officials had said that the error took place late at night, when mistaking tourists for militants might be less hard to imagine.
In its statement on Monday, the Interior Ministry sought instead to blame the tour guides, 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 reasons and circumstances of 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, who was killed in the attack, 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, passed through several police checkpoints and moved only with the approval of its tourist police escort.
The group 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 a military helicopter, a spokesman for the Egyptian armed forces sought to deflect responsibility, saying “when it comes to tourists, it is a Ministry of Interior issue, not ours.”
“This incident has nothing to do with the army even if the army and police carried out the operation together,” said the spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohamed Samir. “This is the system of this country, and you don’t have the right to question it.”
In Mexico, Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu told a news conference that two Mexican citizens had been killed and six more wounded; reports in the Egyptian state media had initially said that eight Mexicans had died in the accident.
“We are waiting for the appropriate Egyptian authorities to give us access to better information that will allow us to know the situation of the rest of the affected people,” Ms. Ruiz Massieu said.
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.”
The Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has fought for more than two years without success to crush a militant Islamist insurgency set off after the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013. The main militant movement is centered in the North Sinai, on the eastern side of the country, and last fall it declared itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
But militants aligned with the group have also attacked security forces in Egypt’s Western Desert region as well, including a major assault in July 2014 that killed at least 21 soldiers. Western diplomats briefed on intelligence reports say they believe that the Egyptian arm of the Islamic State has active cells operating in the vast desert, and they may obtain weapons or find havens across the border in Libya as well.
The air attack on the picnic took place not far from the oasis town of Bahariya, a tourist hub that is a common staging ground for camping excursions into the White Desert.
That area had been considered relatively safe compared with the more remote areas farther west. But residents and security officials said that in recent days Islamic State militants had kidnapped a local Bedouin they had suspected of having acted as a government informer.
The security forces had located the militants and sought to attack them in an effort to rescue the captive Bedouin, the residents and security officials said, but the militants had overwhelmed and beaten back the government’s troops.
That battle appears to have been the basis for the photographs and statement released late Sunday by the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State, Mr. Awad of the Center for American Progress said on Monday. One photograph showed a Bedouin captive bound and beheaded, with his head resting on his back.
The military sent the Apache helicopter to hunt for the militant camp after the defeat of its ground troops, the officials and area residents said. Shock at the retreat of the government’s ground forces after confrontation with the militants may have set the stage for the erroneous airstrike, Mr. Awad said.
The attack on Sunday has received special attention because it involved foreigners. Mexican officials said they first learned of the episode on Sunday afternoon from the tour operator who arranged the trip, Windows on Egypt, and the Mexican Embassy then raised the issue with the Egyptian government.
Residents of the North Sinai say that the security forces’ reliance on air power and shoot-first tactics often lead to many civilian deaths. The Egyptian government, however, has acknowledged virtually no collateral civilian casualties. Instead, the government routinely releases only the numbers of “militants” it has killed. None of the assertions can be confirmed because the government bars independent journalists from entering the area.
In August 2014, however, the Egyptian government acknowledged another episode of accidental killing, on the coastal highway heading west from Cairo near the resort town and World War II battle site of El Alamein.
After initially announcing that five policemen and four militants had died in a gunfight along the highway, the government reversed itself and said that the five policemen had died when their vehicle hit a concrete barrier. The four so-called militants were local civilians killed in a separate episode when they were mistakenly shot by soldiers who mistook their identities.
In that case, the four dead included local notables, and perhaps the reason the military acknowledged the error and apologized, Mr. Awad said.
“It speaks to how frantic these forces can get,” he said. “Mistakes happen when you shoot first and ask questions later,” he added. “This is not the first time.”
Correction: September 14, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated details of an August 2014 accidental killing of civilians that was acknowledged by the Egyptian government. The initial version of the killing said five policemen and four militants had died in a fight on a coastal highway — not four soldiers and five militants. The government later acknowledged that the militants were really civilians who had included local notable citizens, not just one prominent local businessman.
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(via NY Times)