CAIRO – Egyptian authorities have arrested 19 Arabs suspected of having links to al-Qaida en route to Iraq, the interior minister said Tuesday.
In an interview published in Egypt's leading Al-Ahram daily, Habib el-Adly said the suspects are originally from Tunisia and Libya and were using Egypt as a transit point on their way to Iraq to join al-Qaida groups there.
He said security forces also confiscated weapons, ammunition and documents related to al-Qaida. He did not say exactly when or where the arrests took place.
But El-Adly said the suspects were taken into custody before Jan. 1, and stressed the men have no connection with the New Year's Day suicide bombing of a Christian Coptic church in the port city of Alexandria that killed 21 people. Egypt has blamed that attack on the al-Qaida-inspired Palestinian Army of Islam, which is based in the neighboring Gaza Strip.
The minister also denied the presence in Egypt of "any terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida or other groups." But he said there have been attempts to mobilize elements trained outside Egypt or recruit people on the Internet.
"We are sure that there are dozens of people loyal to al-Qaida in Gaza and some of them already have been involved in previous terrorist attempts in Egypt," he said, blaming a 2009 blast at a Cairo mosque that killed a French tourist on the Palestinian Army of Islam.
He said that the Islamic militant Hamas group, which rules Gaza, was going after members of the Palestinian Army of Islam who threaten Hamas' attempts to maintain a cease-fire with Israel that has been in place for two years.