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EGYPT: Police stand guard amid tense calm between Muslims and Christians

January 10, 2010 |  7:32 am


After two days of deadly violence and recriminations between Muslims and Christian Copts, the town of Nag Hammadi was relatively quiet today as security forces stood guard over burned buildings and alleyways.

The mood in the city, 40 miles north of Luxor, has been one of anger and nervous jitters since six Copts and a Muslim guard were killed and nine others were severely injured in a drive-by shooting outside a church during the Coptic Christmas Eve on Wednesday.

The next morning, thousands of Copts demonstrated at the Nag Hammadi hospital – where bodies of the dead and the injured had been taken – and set vehicles and shops ablaze before police forces intervened. Minor clashes also sprang up Thursday between Christians and security personnel during funerals for the six killed.

Despite tight security and the imposition of temporary curfews in an attempt to prevent further violence, altercations persisted in area villages throughout the weekend. "Four houses and a shop belonging to Christians in the village of Tiraks were set on fire by Muslims, while four shops owned by Muslims in the village of al-Bahgorah were set on fire by Christians," Reuters quoted an anonymous security source as saying.

Twenty Muslims and Christians were arrested as a result, according to the source. Since then, a fragile calm has prevailed.

The three suspects in the Coptic Christmas Eve shooting have been charged with premeditated murder. All deny any connection to the shooting.

The first suspect, Mohamed Kammouni, an ex-convict wanted for involvement in seven other crimes, said he surrendered after he was named as an assailant. The other two suspects denied that they were with Kammouni on Wednesday evening and said they had no ties to him.

A statement previously issued by the Egyptian Interior Ministry suggested the shooting may be related to the alleged rape of a Muslim teenage girl by a 20-year-old Coptic man in November. Police said two of the suspects were distant relatives of the girl.

Christians in Egypt, predominantly Copts, form 10% of the country's population of nearly 80 million. They have long complained of social, religious and political discrimination and marginalization. Wednesday's killings were the worst sectarian clashes in Egypt since 20 Copts were killed in 2000.

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: Tight security measures in the village of Bahgoura, Egypt. Credit: AFP