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Al Qaeda-linked militants behind church attack, Egypt says

The interior minister says the Army of Islam carried out the Jan. 1 bombing at a Coptic Christian church that left 25 dead. .

January 23, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Cairo — The Egyptian government announced Sunday that it had "conclusive evidence" that an Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian militant group orchestrated the New Year's Day bombing outside a Coptic Christian church that killed 25 worshipers and agitated sectarian tensions across the country.

Interior Minister Habib Adli blamed the attack on the Army of Islam, an extremist organization based in the Gaza Strip. The naming of foreigners as the culprit may help ease escalating tensions between Muslims and Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the nation's population.

Adli indicated, however, that the Army of Islam recruited Egyptians in planning the bombing. Cairo has long complained that militants in Gaza -- backed by either Al Qaeda or the radical party Hamas -- are plotting cross-border attacks to upset Egypt's tourism industry and inflame religious mistrust

"We have conclusive proof of their heinous involvement in planning and carrying out such a villainous terrorist act," Adli said of the Palestinian group. Egypt's state-run newspaper, Al Ahram, reported that the government had confessions by suspects pointing to the Army of Islam.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bloodshed. Egypt has accused the Army of Islam of masterminding a 2009 bombing that killed a French tourist and wounded 24 in Cairo's historic district. Authorities believe the group was also involved in the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who has been held captive since 2006.

The New Year's Day car bombing at the All Saints' Church in the coastal city of Alexandria stunned Christians and Muslims alike. The attack was followed nearly two weeks later by another deadly assault on Copts when an off-duty policeman opened fire on a train killing a 71-year-old man and wounding five other Christians.

One week ago, Egyptian state security court sentenced a Muslim man to death for last year's drive-by shooting on a church in southern Egypt that killed six Christians. Copts and Muslims have lived in relative peace in Egypt for generations, but Christians are accusing the government of President Hosni Mubarak of ignoring deteriorating relations and a rise in extremism.

"Our government will triumph over terror, and I will do my utmost to maintain unity between Egyptians," Mubarak said Sunday in a televised speech during a ceremony honoring police officers. "I will not be lenient with sectarian actions from either side and will confront their perpetrators with the might and decisiveness of the law."

Amro Hassan of the Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

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