Tuesday 12 December 2017

One dead in Italian Consulate blast

People stand outside the Italian consulate following a blast in Cairo, Egypt (AP)
People stand outside the Italian consulate following a blast in Cairo, Egypt (AP)
A policeman stands at the base of the crumbled facade of the Italian consulate following a blast that killed at least one person in Cairo. (AP)

One person was killed when a car bomb ripped into the Italian Consulate in Cairo early today.

The powerful blast marked the most significant attack yet on foreign interests as militants target Egypt's security forces.

A group calling itself the Islamic State in Egypt claimed responsibility for the bombing in a message circulated on social media.

The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified but it was distributed by known militant sympathisers. Previous claims linked to Islamic State attacks in Egypt had been signed as the group's Sinai Province.

Egypt faces threats from multiple insurgent factions, including the Islamic State affiliate in the restive Sinai which the military says killed at least 17 soldiers in a recent assault there. Security officials from several branches of Egypt's security forces previously told the Associated Press that that attack killed dozens more.

The bomb exploded in a side street in central Cairo near the building's back entrance and a busy highway overpass at around 6.30am local time (0430 GMT). Italian authorities said the consulate was closed at the time and none of its workers were injured.

The blast killed an Egyptian passer-by and wounded eight other people, one of whom is still in hospital, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Egyptian Heath Ministry official Hossam Abdel-Ghaffar told the AP that the dead man had had some of his limbs blown off.

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi after the attack, saying in a statement: "We will not leave Egypt alone: Italy and Egypt are and will always be together in the fight against terrorism."

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Italy would increase security at Italian sites in Cairo and greater Egypt.

"This is not a challenge that the West will win by itself," he said. "It is a challenge that we will win together with the large majority of the Islamic community and of the Arab governments."

An Egyptian security official said investigators were reviewing closed-circuit video recordings from the area, noting that one vehicle that disintegrated in the explosion had licence plates from the canal city of Suez.

The blast heavily damaged the distinctive early 20th century building which once housed a school and became the Italian Consulate after the Second World War. Charred car parts littered the street, which flooded in some areas from ruptured water pipes. Several floors of the consulate were destroyed on one side, leaving a gaping hole.

The purported Islamic State claim said the group had used 900lb (450kg) of explosives in the attack. It warned Muslims to stay away from such "security nests" which were "lawful targets" for attacks.

The bombing marked the first large-scale attack on a foreign diplomatic installation since President el-Sissi took office a year ago, following his 2013 ousting as army chief of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. Since then, attacks on security personnel and officials have intensified, most recently one that killed the country's chief prosecutor near his home in Cairo.

Some bombs went off near branches of foreign businesses ahead of an international investment conference in March. A few months earlier, the British and Canadian embassies closed after senior Egyptian security officials said suspected militants revealed plans to target the embassies, abduct foreign nationals and assassinate public figures.

Egyptian authorities have blamed many attacks on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group, which denies using violence and condemned today's bombing.

The Brotherhood's ranks have grown divided recently over whether to violently confront the government in response to a nearly two-year-old heavy crackdown that has killed hundreds and imprisoned thousands of its members.

It was not clear if Italy was specifically targeted in today's attack. Italy hosted President el-Sissi's first official visit to Europe late last year, and the Italian Consulate building also housed a restaurant popular among Westerners and Cairenes.

The consulate sits on one of the busiest intersections in central Cairo, along a major artery that connects Ramsis Square to the heart of the capital. The surrounding area includes a large hospital, a major police station surrounded by blast walls, a central ambulance dispatching station and the state-owned flagship newspaper Al-Ahram.

Meanwhile, elsewhere today, a mortar shell fired by Sinai militants at an army position hit a car instead, killing one civilian and wounding three near the border town of Rafah, security officials said.

Press Association

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