- Associated Press - Sunday, January 2, 2011

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt | The police investigation into a New Year’s church bombing that killed 21 people is focusing on a local group of Islamic hard-liners inspired by al Qaeda, Egyptian security officials said Sunday.

The suicide attack in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria struck Coptic Christian worshippers as they were leaving midnight Mass Saturday about 30 minutes into the new year. About 100 people were wounded. Dozens returned to pray Sunday in the blood-spattered Saints Church, many of them sobbing, screaming in anger and slapping themselves in grief.

Christians staged demonstrations in at least three cities to protest what they see as the government’s failure to protect their community, but police moved quickly to break up the gatherings. In Alexandria, about 200 Christians staged a noisy protest near the bombed church. Riot police outnumbered them by a ratio of at least 2-to-1 and prevented them from moving elsewhere.

“We are not going to remain silent,” chanted the demonstrators. “Oh, Mubarak, the hearts of the Copts are on fire,” they said in a message for President Hosni Mubarak. Demonstrations also erupted in the capital, Cairo, and in Assiut in southern Egypt.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said the attack “offends God and all of humanity.”

No group claimed responsibility for the bombing in the immediate aftermath. Mr. Mubarak blamed foreigners, and the Alexandria governor accused al Qaeda, pointing to threats against Christians by the terrorist network’s branch in that country.

On Sunday, however, security officials said police were looking at the possibility that Islamic hard-liners based in Alexandria were behind the attack, and perhaps were inspired by al Qaeda though not directly under a foreign command.

Investigators also were examining lists of air passengers who arrived recently in Egypt from Iraq because of the threats by the al Qaeda branch there against Christians in Egypt and Iraq. They said they are looking for any evidence of an al Qaeda financier or organizer who may have visited Egypt to recruit the bomber and his support team from among the ranks of local militants.

Investigators also were examining two heads found at the site on suspicion that at least one was the bomber’s, state news agency MENA reported.

The security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation has not been completed, also said 25 people have been detained for questioning, but none of them was thought to be linked to the attack. They said the 25 were mostly owners of cars parked outside the church at the time, storekeepers and Muslim neighbors known to be Islamic fundamentalists.

Egypt’s government has long insisted that al Qaeda does not have a significant presence in the country, and it has never been conclusively linked to any attacks here.

Egypt does, however, have a rising movement of Islamic hard-liners who do not advocate violence but adhere to an ideology similar in other ways to that of al Qaeda. There have been fears that they could be further radicalized by sectarian tensions. The hard-liners, known as Salafis, have a large and active presence in Alexandria.

The security officials cautioned that the culprits may not necessarily be from the ranks of the Salafis but more likely came from small fringe groups that are even more radical.

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