EGYPTIAN security forces have mistakenly killed 12 people, including Mexican tourists, while chasing jihadists in the country’s vast Western Desert, drawing condemnation and calls for an investigation from Mexico.
A joint police and military operation Sunday “chasing terrorist elements” had “mistakenly” targeted four pick-up trucks carrying Mexican tourists, the interior ministry said in a statement.
The ministry did not give a 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”.
Mexico’s foreign minister was scheduled to give a press conference later Monday.
The incident was likely to raise further concerns for Egypt’s vital tourism industry, which has been struggling to recover from years of political and economic chaos.
The Western Desert, a popular destination for tour groups, extends from the suburbs of Cairo to the Libyan border.
Struggle against jihadists
It was not immediately clear where exactly the incident had taken place in the desert. The interior ministry statement identified the area as “Wahat” but the word means oasis and could designate any of several areas in the desert.
The ministry also did not indicate whether the tourists were targeted with automatic weapons or aerial bombardment during the operation.
The desert is also a militant hideout. Last month the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group beheaded a young Croatian there who was working for a French company and have also launched numerous attacks against security forces.
IS in Egypt said in a statement that it had “resisted a military operation in the Western Desert” on Sunday but provided no other details.
Egypt has been struggling to quell a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, their main holdout in the country’s east, since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi 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 jihadists.
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 increasingly adopting tactics similar to the main IS group in Iraq and Syria.
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 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 then-president Hosni Mubarak.
About 10 million tourists visited Egypt in 2014, down sharply from a 2010 figure of almost 15 million who visited the country with its archaeological sites and Red Sea resorts.