A bomb killed at least 17 people outside a church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria early on New Year's Day, and the Interior Ministry said a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible.
Dozens of people were wounded by the blast, which scattered body parts, scorched cars and smashed windows. The attack prompted Christians to protest on the streets, and some Christians attacked Muslims and a nearby mosque with rocks, a witness said. Cars were torched.
Egypt, due to hold a presidential election in September, has stepped up security around churches, banning cars from parking directly outside them, since an al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq issued a threat against the Church in Egypt in November.
Saturday's blast did not originate in any of the cars that were destroyed, an interior ministry statement on the official news agency said. "It is likely that the device which exploded was carried by a suicide bomber who died among others," it said.
The circumstances of this attack, compared with other incidents abroad, "clearly indicates that foreign elements undertook planning and execution," the statement added.
President Hosni Mubarak promised in a televised address that the terrorists would not destabilise Egypt or divide Christians and Muslims, and said the attack "carries evidence of the involvement of foreign fingers....
Health Minister Hatem el-Gabaly told Reuters by telephone that there were 17 confirmed dead, 12 of them already identified as Christians. Five bodies had yet to be identified. He said initial assessments indicated 70 people were wounded.
State media earlier reported 21 killed in the blast, which struck as worshippers marking the New Year left the church. The ministry had initially blamed the explosion on a car bomb.
Analysts said this attack was on a much bigger scale and appeared far more organised than the kind of violence that usually erupts when communal frustrations boil over.
"This tragic incident certainly does not match any other sectarian assault that my organisation has documented over the past few years," said rights campaigner Hossam Bahgat.
His group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has said the number of violent sectarian incidents has been rising.
After protests overnight, about 150 Christians protested again on Saturday near the Coptic Orthodox church that was hit. "We sacrifice our souls and blood for the cross," they chanted.
The group called Islamic State of Iraq, which claimed an attack on a church in Baghdad in November, threatened Egypt's Church over its treatment of women that the Church was holding 'hostage' after they had converted to Islam.
Alexandria governor Adel Labib "accused al Qaeda of planning the bombing", state television reported in a brief headline without giving further details.
Mubarak called on the authorities swiftly to round up those behind the incident, MENA reported.
Last January, a drive-by shooting of six Christians and a Muslim policeman at a church in southern Egypt sparked protests.
In November, hundreds of Christians clashed with riot police, and with some Muslims who joined in, in Cairo in protest against a decision to halt construction of a church. Officials said the Christians had no licence to build a church.
Two Christians died and dozens were hurt, medical sources said. More than 150 were detained.
Analysts say the state must address grievances such as those over laws making it easier to build a mosque than a church if it wants to stem such sectarian violence.
Officials are swift to play down sectarian differences and have been keen to emphasise national harmony after a November parliamentary election that opposition groups said was rigged, and before the presidential poll in September.
Mubarak, 82 and in power since 1981, is expected to run, if he is able to. Gallbladder surgery in March revived questions about his health, but he has returned to a full schedule.
ReutersLast Mod: 01 Ocak 2011, 15:31