Bomb blast kills 21 in Egypt after New Year's Mass
Al-Qaeda threatened to target state's Christians
A powerful bomb, possibly from a suicide attacker, exploded in front of an Egyptian Coptic Christian church as worshippers emerged from New Year's Mass yesterday, killing at least 21 people and wounding nearly 80 in an attack that raised suspicions of an al-Qaeda role.
The attack came in the wake of threats by al-Qaeda militants in Iraq to attack Egypt's Christians. Al-Qaeda's direct hand in the bombing would be a dramatic development as the government of President Hosni Mubarak has long denied that the terror network has a significant presence in the country.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has already been waging a campaign of violence against Christians in that country.
The bombing enraged Christians, who often complain of discrimination at the hands of Egypt's Muslim majority and accuse the government of covering up attacks on their community. In clashes yesterday afternoon, crowds of Christian youths in the streets outside the church and a neighbouring hospital hurled stones at riot police, who opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Egypt has seen growing tensions between its Muslim majority and Christian minority -- and the attack raised a dangerous new worry, that al-Qaeda or militants sympathetic to it could be aiming to stoke sectarian anger or exploit it to gain a foothold.
Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the New Year's Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, said Father Mena Adel, a priest at the church. The service had just ended, and some worshippers were leaving the building when the bomb went off about a half hour after midnight, he said.
"The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf," Marco Boutros, a 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital bed. "All I could see were body parts scattered all over -- legs and bits of flesh."
Blood splattered the facade of the church, as well as a mosque directly across the street. Bodies of many of the dead were collected from the street and kept inside the church overnight before they were taken away by ambulances for burial.
Some Christians carried white sheets with the sign of the cross emblazoned on them with what appeared to be the blood of the victims. A Health ministry official said the death toll stood at 21, with 79 wounded.
Police initially said the blast came from an explosives-packed vehicle parked outside the church. But the interior ministry said later it was likely the blast was detonated by a suicide bomber and that the attack probably involved "foreign elements".
It said there was no sign the epicentre of the blast was from a car.
Hours after the blast, Mr Mubarak went on state TV and vowed to track down those behind the attack, saying "we will cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt's security". He said it was an attack against "all Egypt".
US President Barack Obama condemned the deadly New Year's Eve attack in Egypt, calling it a "barbaric and heinous act".