Bomb hits Egypt church at New Year's Mass, 21 dead

Mubarak: We will cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt's security; al-Qaida suspected.

Car Bomb Egypt 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Car Bomb Egypt 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — A powerful bomb exploded in front of a crowded Coptic Christian church a half hour into the New Year early Saturday, hitting worshipers emerging from a holiday Mass in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and killing at least 21 people in an attack that raised suspicions of an al-Qaida role.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak vowed to track down those behind the attack, saying "we will cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt's security."
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"This terrorist act has shaken the conscience of the nation," he said in a statement, adding that "all Egypt was targeted, and terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim."
Police initially said the blast came from an explosives-packed car parked outside the Saints Church. But the Interior Ministry later said it was more likely from a suicide bomber on foot.
Both tactics are hallmarks of al-Qaida militants, and the blast came as the terror network's branch in Iraq has waged a campaign of violence against that country's Christian community and raised the threat of similar attacks in Egypt.
If al-Qaida had a direct role, however, it could be a startling development in Egypt, where the government of President Hosni Mubarak has persistently denied that the terror network has a significant presence on the ground. Egypt does have a rising movement of Islamic hard-liners who, while they do not advocate violence, adhere to an ideology similar in other ways to al-Qaida, and there have been fears they could be further radicalized amid growing sectarian tensions in Egypt.
Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the New Year's Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterrean port city, said Father Mena Adel, a priest who attended. The service had just ended, and worshipers 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."
Bodies of many of the dead were collected from the street and kept inside the church overnight before they were taken away Saturday by ambulances for burial amid scenes of grief and anger.
Some Christians carried white sheets with the sign of the cross emblazoned on them with what appeared to be the blood of the victims.
"This attack targets Egypt's security as a whole," said Bishop Armia, a senior aide to Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Church. "God will protect us."
Senior Health Ministry official Osama Abdel Moneim said the death toll stood at 21, with 79 wounded. It weas not immediately known if all the victims were Christians.
After the blast, angry Christians clashed with police and Muslim residents, chanting, "With our blood and soul, we redeem the cross," witnesses said.
An AP photographer at the scene said the protesters stormed into a nearby mosque and threw books out into the street. The protest sparked clashes with Muslims, as both sides began throwing stones and bottles at each other in the streets, until eventually police restored calm.