Suspects in Egypt Christmas attack deny killing 7

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CAIRO (AP) — Three men suspected in the drive-by shooting that left six Christians and one Muslim dead in southern Egypt have denied they were behind the bloody attack on Coptic Christmas Eve, officials said Saturday.

The attack was the worst to target Christians in Egypt in nearly a decade. Gunmen sprayed a group of Coptic Christians leaving a local church after mass on Wednesday night. Six worshippers and a Muslim guard died, and nine people were wounded.

The shooting touched off two days of rioting in which 40 people were arrested, and underscored sectarian tensions in the town of Nag Hamadi, some 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of the famed Luxor ruins.

On Saturday, Christian residents of Bahjora, a village near Nag Hamadi, inspected damage from overnight arson that charred their homes. They blamed Muslims for the attacks.

The three suspects in the Christmas Eve attack surrendered to police on Friday after security forces closed in on their hideout in sugar cane fields outside the town.

Two officials from a local prosecutor’s office said the suspects, whom authorities described as men with criminal records, denied they were involved in Wednesday’s attack.

The suspects will remain in custody for 15 days pending an investigation, the officials said, adding they could face charges of terrorism and premeditated murder — crimes punishable by death under Egyptian law.

No charges have been raised so far, said the officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

Copts, who make up most of 8 million Christians in this country of 80 million people, generally live in peace with Muslims but clashes occasionally occur, particularly in southern Egypt.

The Copts complain of being denied equal citizenship rights and being limited in where they can build churches. The government insists Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims.

Human rights groups say attacks on Copts are on the rise. Coptic community leaders say culprits are rarely convicted because of lack of evidence.