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Islamic State affiliates claim responsibility for deadly attack on Cairo church

The local affiliate of the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for an attack at a Cairo church that left at least nine people dead.

The claim, which was carried by the group's Aamaq news agency, said Friday's attack was carried out by a "security detail" and that one of its men was "martyred" in it.

A gunman on a motorcycle opened fire outside the church and at a nearby shop, sparking a shoot-out that killed at least nine people, including eight Coptic Christians, in the latest attack targeting the country's embattled Christian minority.

The gunman was also killed, along with at least one police officer, officials said.

The attack came amid tightened security around churches and Christian facilities before the Coptic Orthodox Christian celebrations of Christmas on January 7.

Police have been stationed outside churches and in nearby streets across Cairo.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has personally chaired meetings with his senior security chiefs in recent days to discuss security during New Year's Eve and the Orthodox Christmas.

The attack began when the gunman tried to break through the security cordon outside the Coptic Church of Mar Mina.

It was not clear how many assailants were involved. Egypt's interior ministry referred to only one, but the Coptic Orthodox church mentioned "gunmen".

Five people were wounded, including another police officer, health ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said.

A video circulating on social media after the attack apparently showed the gunman lying on the ground with his face covered in blood. Authorities closed off the area around the church.

The interior ministry identified the assailant as Ibrahim Ismail Mostafa, who, it said, was involved in several previous militant attacks.

The attacker had earlier opened fire at the nearby shop owned by a Christian, the ministry said.

Islamic militants have for years fought security forces in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in an insurgency now led by IS. It is centred in the turbulent northern part of Sinai but has also carried out attacks in the mainland.

The militants are targeting mainly security personnel and Egypt's Coptic Christian minority.

The latest attack, in the southern Cairo suburb of Helwan, highlights the difficulties faced by security forces in containing an insurgency that is growing in sophistication and brutality.

The assault came a little more than a month after militants killed 311 worshippers inside a mosque in Sinai, the deadliest attack by militants on civilians in Egypt's modern history.

Last week, they fired a guided rocket that destroyed an army helicopter at the airport of the city of el-Arish in northern Sinai during an unannounced visit there by the defence and interior ministers.

At least one senior officer was killed and two wounded in that attack, which pointed to an unusually high level of intelligence available to the militants.

Samir Gerges, who witnessed Friday's attack, said people inside the church closed the gates when the shooting began but that some bullets penetrated the building.

Another witness, 40-year-old Raouth Atta, was praying inside the church when the violence broke out.

"People were terrified and wanted to check on their families in other buildings of the church," she said.

"We stayed inside for 30 minutes before we were able to get out."

Since December 2016, Egypt's Copts have been targeted by the militants, who waged a series of attacks that left more than 100 dead and scores wounded.

The country has been under a state of emergency since April after suicide bombings struck two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday.

The local IS affiliate has claimed responsibility for all the bombings targeting Christians.

Christians make up about 10% of Egypt's population. They have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation and claim that authorities have often failed to protect them from sectarian attacks.

Just last week, hundreds of Muslim demonstrators stormed an unlicensed church south of Cairo, wounding three people.

The demonstrators shouted anti-Christian slogans and called for the church's demolition, according to the local diocese.

They destroyed the church's fittings and assaulted Christians inside before security personnel arrived and dispersed them.

AP

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