20 dead following sectarian clashes in Egypt


At least 20 people have been killed and 45 injured in the most serious sectarian clashes for decades in Egypt's troubled south.

Nineteen of the dead were Christian, but the Interior Ministry stated that both Muslim and Christian property was destroyed in the rioting and looting that accompanied the violence.

Authorities said the dispute began last Wednesday in the village of Kosheh, about 500 km south of Cairo, when a Christian shopkeeper, Mr Rashad Man sour, refused to give credit to, and then insulted, a Muslim street vendor, Mr Fayez Awad.

Mr Awad returned on Friday with his two brothers and when Mr Mansour refused to apologise for the insult, the men began shooting, injuring three passing farmers.

As others were caught in the crossfire, the violence escalated and by Sunday, Kosheh residents were exchanging fire from rooftops and rampaging crowds looted and destroyed shops. The clashes then spread to the neighbouring villages of Dar es-Salaam and Awlad Toq West.

By Monday a semblance of calm appeared to have returned to the area, although foreign journalists were blocked from travelling to the town. At least 20 people have been arrested and there is a heavy police presence in the area.

"Security organs have controlled and contained the situation between the two disputed parties," the Interior Ministry said in a statement issued yesterday.

Although the statement went on to blame the violence on "criminal and violence-seeking elements", the incident has puzzled many people in the capital.

Sectarian strife on such a scale is rare in Egypt and, despite the often brutal Islamist violence that wracked the area in the early and mid-1990s, reports from both Muslims and Christians in the area say there is no evidence of militant involvement.

However, Kosheh is infamous as the scene of alleged police brutality just over a year ago, raising questions about whether the two incidents are related.

According to human rights groups, in late 1998 police arrested several hundred Christians and tortured many of them while investigating the murder of two Christians in the village, apparently in an overzealous attempt to find a Christian culprit and avoid inflaming tensions between the two communities.

The Interior Ministry denied the allegations, saying that the wounds of alleged torture victims were in fact caused by age or disease, but the police officers involved were reassigned to administrative posts.

The incident caused an international furore and led to accusations that Egypt persecuted its Coptic minority - an accusation that was strongly denied by the government.