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What really happened in the Western Desert?
 
 
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Confusion reigns over the circumstances of a mistaken military airstrike on a convoy of Mexican tourists in the Western Desert that killed at least 12 people, as official sources largely remain silent and on-the-ground sources provide conflicting details as to what actually happened.

The Interior Ministry issued a statement early Monday morning admitting an accidental attack on four cars in a restricted area that killed 12 people and injured 10. The Interior Ministry has not issued any further statement since then, while the military has yet to issue one at all.

Instead, the military’s communications team appears to be proceeding with business as usual. On Monday afternoon, the Armed Forces spokesperson posted a laudatory account of Major General Sedky Sobhy’s visit to the Armed Forces’ Western Division, in which he praised the division’s morale and determination.

The president’s office has not issued a statement, but sent a delegation to the Mexican Embassy in Cairo to offer congratulations on Mexico’s upcoming independence day, the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported.

As defense officials stay silent, questions are swirling as to how and why the tourists were attacked.

State sources have insisted that the convoy entered a restricted area without permission, thus shifting some of the blame onto the tourism operators. But tourism sector officials and people on the ground have said the issue is not so black-and-white, blaming security forces for failing to communicate that the convoy was entering a dangerous area.

The allegedly restricted area

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that the tourists were killed when they entered a restricted area during an ongoing security operation against terrorists.

Local tribal leader Atef Sabry told Mada Masr that the Air Force became active in the area after armed attackers kidnapped a local guide near Bohour on Thursday.

The foreign minister said the tourists were traveling in four-by-four vehicles similar to those of the suspects, thus prompting the Air Forces to attack the convoy. Survivors have said security forces bombed and opened fire on them from an airplane and helicopters, according to a Mexican foreign affairs ministry statement.

But Moataz al-Sayed, a member of the ministry’s tourism advisory board and former head of the General Tourist Guides Syndicate, told Mada Masr that the convoy had received permissions and clearances for its trip into the desert. Neither their police escort, nor the soldiers at the military checkpoints that the convoy passed through, informed the tourists that they were entering a restricted area, he claimed.

The tour guides could not have known which areas were off-limits, Sayed continued, as “there were no signs or flags, and none of the checkpoints warned them against any restrictions.”

Hassan al-Nahla, head of the General Tourist Guides Syndicate, issued a statement Monday lambasting the police for failing to coordinate with the Tourism Ministry.

“Why would the tourism police allow an escort with the group and allow us to go to the restricted areas,” he asked, “without enough information on the events in the area over the past two days?”

The alleged 2-km detour

The convoy was attacked about 90 km northeast of Wahat, according to Hamada Hashem, a tour guide working in the area. He told Mada Masr that visits to the area don’t necessitate permits, but that the military has restricted desert trips in the whole of the Western Desert since a terrorist attack on a checkpoint in Farafra killed at least 21 soldiers in 2014. Since then, the military occasionally allowed trips when the situation was calm, Hashem said, but the desert activity has mostly diminished.

Sayed said the group was on their way back to their hotel when the attack happened. While en route, the group may have headed to a well-known lunch spot 2 km off the road, according to Hashem — a spot tour guides frequently stop at on the way from Cairo.

The tour company did give an itinerary to security forces announcing that the group was traveling down the desert road toward the Qasr al-Bawity hotel, according to Sabry — but the itinerary did not include the alleged detour to the off-road lunch stop.

A picture of the purported itinerary has circulated on social media, and it appears to show that the tourism company did notify the police that the convoy would be traveling toward that hotel on Sunday.

According to Sabry — who said he spoke with a surviving Egyptian driver shortly after the attack — when the convoy pulled off-road, the driver and the accompanying police escort walked out of sight behind a sand dune to relieve themselves.

The attack happened at this time, which was around 1:30 pm, Sabry said.

Hashem believes the tourism operators broke established protocol by taking the trip without coordinating with the military, just one day after militants allegedly attacked military forces close to their destination.

Sabry believes the attack came down to simple bad luck.

The once-popular destination

The vast Western Desert, which stretches from the Nile Valley to the Libyan border, is a haven for both Islamist militants and tourists wishing to visit Egypt’s famous oases and the otherworldly scenery of the Black and White Deserts.

The Bahariya Oasis region where the incident occurred is also a popular desert safari attraction.

The Tourism Ministry’s official website describes the oasis as “a lush haven set in the midst of an unforgiving desert,” and encourages would-be tourists to go on hikes, haggle with locals, visit ancient ruins and enjoy solitude in the wilderness. The site proclaims, “Your options in Bahariya are wider than you can imagine.”

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Isabel Esterman