Egypt Detains 17 After Deadly Blast

Egyptian police detained 17 suspects after a bomb blast killed 21 people outside a church in Alexandria, Al Jazeera television reported, citing unidentified security officials.

The explosion early on New Years Day injured more than 90 people, according to the Health Ministry. President Hosni Mubarak blamed the attack on “foreign elements.” The Interior Ministry said it increased security around churches “in light of the escalating threats from al-Qaeda to many countries,” according to a statement on its website.

Analysts said in the NY Times that the weekend bombing was in a sense the culmination of a long escalation of violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. But at the same time the blast’s planning and scale — a suicide bomber evidently detonated a locally made explosive device packed with nails and other shrapnel, the authorities said Sunday — were a break with the smaller episodes of intra-communal violence that have marked Muslim-Christian relations for the past decade.

Instead, it was reminiscent of the 1990s attacks by Egyptian Islamist terrorists on Christians, tourists and government institutions. Analysts said the flare-up was likely to increase the domestic dissatisfaction with the 30-year-old tenure of President Hosni Mubarak, who has made preserving Egypt’s stability his guiding principle.

The Egyptian Ministry of Information issued a statement urging news organizations to “emphasize the national aspect in addressing the national unity issue” and avoid “topics” or “details” that might “deepen the wounds and add fuel to the fire in an issue related to the security of the homeland.”

Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks violence between Muslims and Copts, argued that the government’s denial of sectarian tension had exacerbated the problem.

“What we see is a heavy-handed response from the security agencies, arbitrary arrests on both sides of any conflict, and then forced reconciliations, where the victims are coerced into withdrawing their criminal complaints and accepting the arbitrary justice,” Mr. Bahgat said.

“The response is driven by security agencies whose main desire is to impose quiet after any incident and close the file,” he said, often letting off the true perpetrators.

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