LUXOR, Egypt – Police have surrounded the farm fields in southern Egypt where gunmen who killed six Christians following Christmas eve mass are believed to be hiding, as massive numbers of riot police ensure that violence does not erupt anew in the tense town.
The MENA news agency quoted an anonymous security official late Thursday saying the police have recovered the car used in the drive-by shooting and identified the three perpetrators.
Egyptian Prosecutor General Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud arrived Friday in the southern province of Qena, where the incident occured, to head investigations into the attack, state media reported.
There was also a major meeting of security heads to ensure that violence does not erupt anew, especially following weekly Friday prayers.
Three gunmen opened fire on a crowd of worshippers leaving a church in the town of Naga Hamadi, 40 miles north of the famed ruins of Luxor. A Muslim guard was also killed, and nine others wounded, including three in serious condition
The Interior Ministry said it suspected that the Nag Hamadi attack was in retaliation for the alleged November rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town.
Police have identified the perpetrators as outlaws with previous criminal records.
Thousands of Christians in Naga Hamadi went on a rampage Thursday protesting the attack and discrimination against their community. They clashed with police and smashed amubulance and shop windows.
On Friday, though, officials reported that calm had been restored.
"It's business as usual in the town," said one official on the phone from Naga Hamadi.
The local branch of the ruling National Democratic Party has asked leaders of both Muslim and Christian communties to help in ending violence, according to state media.
Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt's predominantly Muslim population of some 80 million people. They celebrate Christmas every year on Jan. 7.
The Copts generally live in peace with Muslims although clashes and tensions occasionally occur, particularly in southern Egypt, mostly over land or church construction disputes.
The attack on the holiest day in the Coptic calendar was the worst known incident of sectarian violence in a decade. In 2000, Christian-Muslim clashes left 23 people, all but two of them Christian, dead. The clashes were touched off by an argument between a Coptic merchant and a Muslim shopper in a village after years of simmering tensions.
The latest attack, however, was unusual in that it appeared to have been planned, in contrast to the spontaneous violence that had in the past erupted from disputes between Muslims and Copts.
The thorny issue of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt has taken added significance in recent years given the growing Islamic militancy and the increasing number of Christians, fed up with their perceived second-class status, becoming radicalized. Widespread poverty, high unemployment and the near total lack of genuine political reform are believed to have helped deepen the sectarian faultline.