CAIRO (Reuters) – A gunman fired at worshippers and Egyptian police stationed outside a Coptic Orthodox church near Cairo on Friday and killed at least nine people before he was wounded and arrested, the interior ministry and church officials said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Islamist militants have claimed several attacks on Egypt’s large Christian minority in recent years, including two bombings on Palm Sunday in April and a blast at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral in December 2016 that killed 28 people.
Earlier reports by security sources and state media said at least two attackers were involved, and that one was shot dead and another fled the scene. The interior ministry did not explain the reason for the different accounts.
The Coptic Church said the gunman first shot at a Christian-owned shop 4 km (3 miles) away, killing two people, before proceeding to the Mar Mina church in the southern Cairo suburb of Helwan. The Interior Ministry said he opened fire at the entrance to the site and tried to throw an explosive device.
Eleven people were killed in all, including a policeman at the church, according to Interior Ministry and Coptic Church accounts. The Church said a young woman had died later from her wounds, bringing the civilian death toll at the church to eight.
The ministry added that investigators had identified the gunman and that he had carried out several attacks since last year.
The health ministry said earlier that five people had been wounded, including two women who were in serious condition.
Security forces went on high alert for Christmas and New Year celebrations. Egypt is also grappling with a deadly Islamic State insurgency in the North Sinai region.
A joint funeral for eight of those killed was held on Friday evening at the Virgin Mary church in Helwan.
The ministry said security forces had “immediately dealt with the (attacker) and arrested him after he was wounded.” It added, “Legal measures have been taken,” without elaborating.
Cairo’s state prosecutor said that an investigation has been launched into the incident.
“The shooting began at 10:30 a.m. and carried on for more than 15 minutes … there was more than one attacker,” Mohammed Hussein Abdelhadi, who lives close to the church, told Reuters.
A witness who did not want to give his name said the policeman was killed while he was closing the church gate to stop the gunman getting in.
The church was being guarded by police in the run-up to Orthodox Christmas celebrations next week.
Police have stepped up security measures around churches ahead of Coptic Christmas celebrations on Jan. 7, deploying officers outside Christian places of worship and setting up metal detectors at some of the bigger churches.
Head of the Coptic church Pope Tawadros II mourned the victims, as did Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who offered his condolences to the families. Sisi also ordered security forces to increase safety measures at sensitive sites, his office said in a statement.