There was nothing out of the ordinary about the scene unfolding at midday last Sunday in the Egyptian desert region of Darb-Al-Wahat.
A group of tourists, their drivers and their tour guides had stopped for lunch at a spot where the beautiful landscape attracts thousands of tourists every year. It was 2pm and the sun was beating down.
“They were eating quietly when suddenly, a helicopter showed up, dropped several missiles and destroyed their cars,” the family member of one of the drivers told EL PAÍS.
Egyptian soldiers mistakenly bombed the convoy, killing at least eight Mexican tourists and four Egyptians who were traveling with them, according to Al Ahram – Egypt’s pro-government newspaper – which cited sources from the attorney general’s office.
Security agents are protected from legal prosecution for actions committed in the fight against terrorism
So far, Mexico has only confirmed two Mexican fatalities and six wounded.
In a telephone conversation, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told his Mexican counterpart, Claudia Ruiz Massieu, that Egyptian security forces made a mistake as they were carrying out an “anti-terrorist operation” in the area. The convoy was allegedly mistaken for a group of jihadists working for the Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State.
All eye witnesses said there was an aerial attack in the area. “We were about 200 meters from the road... Suddenly, there was a big explosion,” Rashid Faruq, one of the Egyptian citizens who survived the attack, said in a telephone interview on the TV show Jadra al-muatin (The presence of the spectator) on the station Al Asima. “I was able to run, get into one of the cars, and drive for help,” he added. Faruq suffered minor injuries from shrapnel cuts on one leg.
The blast injured a dozen or so people, some of whom remain in critical condition – including seven Mexicans, two Egyptians and one American woman. An ambulance took them to Dar al-Fouad Hospital in southwest Cairo. Mexican ambassador Jorge Alvárez spoke with his injured compatriots, who provided details of the incident.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has condemned the attack and called for a “thorough investigation.”
According to the Egyptian government, the group was traveling in four off-road vehicles and did not have the necessary permits to move around in the area. Yet sources from the tour guide company, Windows of Egypt, said authorities had been duly informed about their route. One company manager published a photograph of the group’s activity schedule, signed by an Egyptian tourism official, Azza Guergues reports from Cairo.
The document shows that the convoy was scheduled to “move toward Wahat al-Bahariya,” where the incident took place, at 8am. It also says the tour would last two weeks, from September 11 to September 25, and that the guide in charge would be someone named Nabil Mohamed Alí. The paperwork even indicates the nationality of the travelers: “Mexicans.”
“There were no road signs indicating that it was a restricted area,” Faruq told Al Asima.
Over the last couple of years, Egypt has been grappling with a fierce Islamist insurgency that has resulted in the death of nearly 700 security agents. Several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have denounced the Egyptian army for its alleged scorched earth policy at conflict hotspots, including the Sinai Peninsula.
Besides abuses against the civilian population, these organizations have also criticized Egypt for the impunity enjoyed by its law enforcement agencies, which are rarely held accountable in the courts. An anti-terrorist law passed in August 2015 protects security agents from legal prosecution for actions committed in the fight against terrorism.
Perhaps this helps explain the Egyptian army’s rushed bombing operation against the tourist convoy.
English version by Dyane Jean François.