Suicide bomber kills 21 at Egypt church
Egypt said a suicide bomber killed 21 people and wounded 79 outside a Coptic church on Saturday, in an attack President Hosni Mubarak said was the work of "foreign hands."
There was no immediate claim but Al-Qaeda has called for punishment of Egypt's Copts over claims that two priests' wives they say had converted to Islam were being held by the Church against their will.
The bombing in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria sparked anger among Christians, who clashed with police and shouted slogans against the regime of the ageing president.
A health ministry official said 21 people were killed and 79 wounded, and the interior ministry said eight of those hurt were Muslims.
A witness had told private channel On-TV that in a car park outside the Al-Qiddissin (The Saints) church shortly after midnight (2200 GMT Friday), he saw two men get out and the explosion happen almost immediately afterwards.
But the interior ministry ruled out the hypothesis of a car bomb, saying it was "probable that the bomb... was carried by a suicide bomber who died among the crowd."
The device was packed with pieces of metal to cause the maximum harm, the ministry added.
And the circumstances of the explosion, "given the methods that currently prevail in terrorist activities at the global and regional level, clearly indicate" that the bombing was "planned and carried out by foreign elements."
Mubarak echoed that, saying the bombing bore the hallmark "of foreign hands."
In televised remarks, he referred to it as something that "is alien to us," and pledged to "cut off the head of the snake, confront terrorism and defeat it."
Egypt has been the target of repeated attacks against foreign tourists in recent years, most notably bombings on resorts in the south Sinai and a hostage bloodbath in Luxor in 1997 that killed more than 60 holidaymakers.
Pope Benedict XVI, during New Year's mass, urged world leaders to defend Christians against abuse and intolerance.
"I once again launch a pressing appeal not to give in to discouragement and resignation," said the pontiff.
In Britain, junior foreign office minister Alistair Burt said "the world must be increasingly vigilant against such attacks wherever they occur, remain united in promotion of common values of tolerance and stand against the terrorist philosophy of violence."
Refaa al-Tahtawi, spokesman for Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's main seat of learning, appealed for calm, as did a senior Coptic official.
Some 15 hours after the bombing, growing numbers of Christians were continuing to vent their anger.
By mid-afternoon, hundreds of youths in small groups in the neighbourhood of the church were showering rocks and bottles on police, who responded with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.
"O Mubarak, the heart of the Copts is on fire," they shouted as they darted in and out of side-streets to heckle police.
Others unfurled their fury at the "cowardly terrorists" and chanted: "The blood of the Copts is not cheap."
One demonstrator brandished a large cross, with bloody remnants of victims' clothing attached.
In Alexandria, the church said in a statement that the attack "constituted a dangerous escalation in sectarian incidents against the Copts."
Provincial governor Adel Labib promised to boost security at churches, and said that families of the dead would receive 15,000 pounds (2,600 dollars).
While no one has claimed the attack, it comes two months after gunmen stormed a Baghdad cathedral in an operation that left 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel dead.
That was claimed by Al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, which said its purpose was to force the release of the two women in Egypt.
"All Christian centres, organisations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen (holy warriors) wherever they can reach them," the group said.
"Let these idolaters, and at their forefront, the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican, know that the killing sword will not be lifted from the necks of their followers until they declare their innocence from what the dog of the Egyptian Church is doing," the ISI said.
After those threats, protection around Coptic places of worship was discreetly stepped up, with Mubarak saying he was committed to protecting the Christians "faced with the forces of terrorism and extremism".
The Copts, who account for up to 10 percent of Egypt's 80-million population and often complain of discrimination, have been the target of repeated sectarian attack.
© 2011 AFP