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EGYPT: Eyewitness claims train attacker did not target Copts, state media say

January 12, 2011 |  9:36 am

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An off-duty police officer who killed one Copt and wounded five others on board a train Tuesday didn't intentionally target Christians, Egypt's state news agency quoted an eyewitness as saying.

"The attacker boarded the train with his face to the passengers' backs, before pulling out his gun, turning and firing randomly without saying anything or seeming to know any of the people he aimed at," Hossam Abd El Aal, who entered the train when it stopped at Samalut station, where the assault occurred, told MENA.

Officials said a 71-year-old Copt was killed and his wife and four other Christians were seriously wounded when Amer Ashour Abdel Zaher fired at passengers heading from the southern city of Assyut to Cairo. According to the Health Ministry, two of the wounded remain in critical condition.

A security official told the Agence France-Presse news agency that Abdel Zaher, who is facing charges of murder, told interrogators that he was "frustrated and irritated" when he carried out the attack, without mentioning if it was religiously driven or not.

The governor of Minya, where Samalut is located, told Egyptian state television that the incident "has to do with Abdel Zaher's mental state and has nothing to do with the religion of his victims."

But earlier on Wednesday, AFP quoted a Samalut priest as saying that he was told by victims that the assailant targeted Copts, picking out people near a group of women not wearing headscarves: "The victims told me that after he was certain, he raised his gun and yelled 'Allahu akbar' or 'God is great,'" a priest identified as Morkos said, according to AFP.

One victim told Al Youm Al Sabee, an Egyptian independent news website, that "the offender yelled 'la ilah illa Allah,' or "there is no god but Allah'" rather than "Allahu akbar."

The incident came less than two weeks after a church bombing that left 25 Coptic worshipers dead and about 80 others injured in the coastal city of Alexandria, an attack that triggered Christians' anger and raised the volatile sectarian problem in Egypt to an unprecedented peak.

On Tuesday, Egypt summoned its ambassador to the Vatican for consultations, following Pope Benedict XVI's calls for increased protection for Christian minorities in the Middle East.

Egypt's Foreign Ministry as well as the Sunni Muslim world's leading institution, Al Azhar, both described the pope's comments as an "unacceptable interference in Egypt's internal affairs."

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: A Coptic demonstration after a church bombing in Alexandria. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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