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Monday, 10 April 2017

Twin church attacks leave 47 dead, 126 injured in Tanta, Alexandria

At least 47 people are dead and 126 others wounded after blasts yesterdaytargeted Coptic Christians in Alexandria and Tanta, according to state-owned Al Ahram. Twenty-five people were killed by a device that security officials initially said was planted in a pew near the front of St George’s Coptic Church in Tanta. Officials have since suggested the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. The Tanta blast was followed by an explosion outside St Mark’s Coptic Church in Alexandria that came as security forces denied an apparent suicide bomber entry to the church compound. Pope Tawadros, who was in Alexandria to lead Palm Sunday mass, was unhurt, state media says.

In an address to the nation last night (runtime 7:53), President Abdel Fattah El Sisi declared a three-month nationwide state of emergency. El Sisi also announced the establishment of a Supreme Anti-Terrorism Council that will be granted “the necessary powers and jurisdiction” over levers the president said could help in the fight against terror, including the media and religious discourse. The Council will also look at new powers for police and intelligence investigators as well as how to fast-track terror cases through the court system. The president called on state security officers to expedite their investigation into the massacres and bring the perpetrators to justice. The president extended his condolences and those of the nation to the victims’ families and demanded that the international community hold countries that fund and support terrorism accountable. The measures the president announced in his speech were approved at a meeting of his National Defense Council (Ittihadiya readout on the meeting here in English, pdf)

The blasts were timed to create maximum casualties, taking place on Palm Sunday, the first day of Easter week, when church attendance soars. Most government offices and many companies recognize Palm Sunday as a day off for Christians.

Among the deceased was the head of Shibin El Kom court Samuel George, who died in Tanta, according to state television, Al Masry Al Youm reports. As of dispatch time, one of the youngest victims noted by the press was 23 year-old Bishoy Iskander; earlier reports had suggested that many of the dead were young children, but there has since been no confirmation. Seven members of the police force were killed in an attack, including Emad El Rakaybi who reportedly stopped the suicide bomber from entering the St. Mark’s Church. The interior Ministry also noted that three women had been killed, making them the first female police officers to die in the line of duty, the ministry said. An image of one of the slain police officers with her son, also a member of the police service, is getting wide pickup on social media.

Daesh claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying two pseudonymous pieces of garbage wearing explosive vests had carried them out. Yesterday’s bombings come one week after a terrorist attack targeting a police training center in Tanta killed one member of the police force and injured 16 others.

Early results of investigations by the police and intelligence services point to bothbombings being suicide attacks. Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek said yesterday that he is waiting for the results of forensic tests before confirming the perpetrators’ identities and the explosive materials used, Al Masry Al Youm reports.

The Armed Forces have dispatched special units across the country to assist the police in protecting churches, key infrastructure and other possible targets of further attacks. Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar replaced Gharbiya security director Gen. Hossam Khalifa with Gen. Tarek Hassouna, according to an emailed ministry statement.

The ministry also denied that other churches had been bombed across the country and called on the media to rely on official statements to avoid causing further panic. Reports of bombs being defused at a Sufi mosque are so-far unconfirmed. The Interior Ministry statement followed unconfirmed reports from outlets including Extra News alleging that security forces found and defused at least one explosive device at the Sufi Sidi Abdel Rehim Mosque in Tanta (watch, runtime 2:31).

Videos of the attacks, most from CCTV footage, are playing on loop in the domestic and international media, with the most prominent being that of the attacker being barred from entry to St Mark’s cathedral by a member of the police service before detonating the bomb (watch, runtime: 3:39). The other appears to show prayer services inside St George’s Church immediately before the explosion (watch, runtime: 0:22). The most recent to hit the airwaves clearly shows the face the man alleged to have been the Alexandria bomber (watch, runtime: 1:13).

The Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement mourning the victims, saying the attacks were also an attack on national unity.

Largest bloc in House welcomes El Sisi’s anti-terror measures; MPs to summon interiorand justice ministers: The House of Representatives condemned the attack and the Support Egypt Coalition — a pro-government bloc and the largest in the House — declared their support for the new security measures the president announced last night. The House general assembly voted to call in Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar and Justice Minister Mohamed Hossam Abdel Rehim today for updates on the security situation and the government’s plan to combat terrorism, according to Al Masry Al Youm. The decision followed a very heated debate in the House in which a number of MPs vented their anger at Abdel Ghaffar and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, calling for an inquiry, Ahram Gate reports.

In the wake of the attacks, MPs are clamoring to vote on amendments to the criminal code that they say would speed up criminal trials for terror suspects, with some calling for wider use of military trials in terror cases. The House of Representatives’ Legislative Committee will discuss amendments to the Criminal Procedures Act during its session today and hopes to finalize them by Tuesday ahead of a plenary session vote by next week, MP Mohamed El Aqqad said on Sunday, according to Ahram Gate. The amendments, designed expedite the prosecution of terror cases, have been on the table since an attack on a Coptic cathedral in Cairo killed around 30 people last December. The House of Representatives has also filed a request to the Justice Ministry on Sunday demanding that more Egyptian courts be assigned terrorism cases to speed up criminal proceedings, a statement picked up by the newspaper adds.

OFFICIAL REACTION: Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said terrorism targets Muslims and Christians alike, according to a Cabinet statement. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid described the bombings in a tweet as “another obnoxious but failed attempt against all Egyptians,” and launched the hashtag “#united_on_PalmSunday” to call for unity against terrorism. That initial response from the Foreign Ministry proved controversial as the day unfolded and the death toll mounted. Al Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed El Tayeb denounced the attacks as an attempt to destabilize the country’s stability and security, according to Al Ahram. Dar Al-Ifta extended its condolences to Pope Tawadros II and the victims of the bombings, and reaffirmed its to reforming religious discourse to discredit extremists.

The Tourism Ministry is assessing the impact the attacks could have on tourism, Al Borsa reports. Industry players fear the attacks will hobble the nascent recovery, and JWT’s advertising arm confirmed it will suspend Egypt’s national tourism promotion campaign on international television channels for the time being.

INTERNATIONAL REAX: Pope Francis I, who celebrated Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican and is expected in Egypt on 28 April, was one of the first global leaders to condemn the attacks, Reuters reports. He said “I pray for the dead and the victims. May the Lord convert the hearts of people who sow terror, violence and death and even the hearts of those who produce and traffic in weapons.”

US President Donald Trump also expressed his support and condolences. “So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns. I have great confidence that President Al Sisi will handle [the] situation properly,” he said on Twitter. The tweets followed a statement from the US State Department reaffirming that “The United States will continue to support Egypt’s security and stability in its efforts to defeat terrorism.” President Trump called President El Sisi in person to reiterate his support, according to a statement from Ittihadiya. A US congressional delegation visiting US servicemen and women in Sinai at the time of the attack also issued a statement of condemnation, according to the Washington Post.

Other international leaders condemned the bombings. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman phoned El Sisi to offer his support, Ittihadiya said. Other governments and world leaders to have issued statements of support include Russia, the EU, the UN, Jordan, Bahrain, the UAE, the UK, Germany, Canada, India, and even Turkey.

Israel orders citizens out of Sinai: The Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesperson for Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, issued a warning via Twitter urging citizens in Sinai to return to Israel in light of the attacks and “Welayat Sinai’s intention to carry out attacks” in the peninsula.

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