(Reuters) – A bomb killed at least 21 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, destroyed cars and smashed windows. The attack prompted Christians to protest on the streets, and some Christians and Muslims hurled stones at each other.
Egypt has stepped up security around churches, banning cars from parking outside them, since an al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq issued a threat against the Church in Egypt in November.
Egypt’s leaders were quick to call for unity, wary of any upsurge in sectarian strife or other tension as the country approaches a presidential election due in September amid some uncertainty about whether President Hosni Mubarak, 82, will run.
Mubarak promised in a televised address that terrorists would not destabilize Egypt or divide Christians and Muslims. He said the attack “carries evidence of the involvement of foreign fingers” and vowed to pursue the perpetrators.
A statement on an Islamist website posted about two weeks before the blast called for attacks on Egypt’s churches, listing among them the one hit. No group was named in the statement.
President Barack Obama described the bombing as a “barbaric and heinous act” and said the United States, a major ally, was ready to help Cairo in responding to it.
The Muslim Brotherhood, seen as Egypt’s biggest opposition group and which decades ago renounced violence as means to power in Egypt, condemned the attack.
“There are people who want this country to be unstable, and all fingers point to outside hands being behind this incident,” senior group member Mohamed el-Katatni said.
The circumstances of the attack, compared with other incidents abroad, “clearly indicates that foreign elements undertook planning and execution,” the Interior Ministry said.
“It is likely that the device which exploded was carried by a suicide bomber who died among others,” it said in a statement. State media had earlier blamed a car bomb.
The embassy of the United States, a close ally of Egypt, expressed condolences to victims of the “terrible event.” Other Western and regional states also condemned the bombing.
An Iraqi deputy interior minister, Hussein Kamal, urged Arab states to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and to help stop Arab militants training in Iraq and then returning home.
Health Ministry spokesman Abdel Rahman Shahin said 21 people had been confirmed killed so far and 97 were wounded, the official Middle East News Agency reported.