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At Least 12 Dead After Egyptian Forces Mistakenly Target Mexican Tour Group

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Yesterday in Egypt, a Mexican tour group was mistakenly targeted by airstrikes. Egyptian security forces mistook them for militants. At least 12 people were killed. Egyptian judicial sources say at least seven were Mexican citizens. The tourists and their guides were headed to a hotel in an area where tourists go for desert safaris. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Ads like this one boast about the beauty of the Western Desert, with golden sand dunes, unique rock formations and oases. But yesterday, a vacation for one group of tourists beginning their journey into the desert turned into an unbelievable nightmare. They had just stopped for lunch about 50 miles from the hotel when the attack began. The Mexican Foreign Ministry says survivors described an aerial attack by an airplane and helicopters. Egypt's security forces say they were chasing armed militants in the area.

Egypt's Ministry of Interior and the tourism industry blamed the tour groups for the deaths, saying the area was restricted to travelers because of battles with militants there. The killings came on the same day that the self-declared Islamic State released a statement declaring its presence in the Western Desert. It included a picture of a beheaded Egyptian man snatched by militants from a village nearby.

AMR IMAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: But Amr Imam, a human rights lawyer and a relative of the manager at the Eco Lodge where the tourists where to stay says that's just not true. His relative was among those killed in the attack.

IMAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Imam says the tourists and their guides were not in a restricted area. They had permits and a police escort waiting for them at the hotel. Imam says the government's statements are slander and calls the attack a crime against humanity. The president of Mexico condemned the killings on Twitter and demanded an exhaustive investigation.

The incident is a tragic mistake at time when Egypt's economy is already foundering in part because of a huge drop in tourism. Analysts say it also calls into question the training of Egypt security forces now conducting major military operations in the Western Desert and in the Sinai Peninsula along Egypt's eastern border. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.