CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt said on Saturday that police have arrested seven members of an alleged Al-Qaeda-affiliated cell over a Cairo bazaar bombing three months ago that killed a teenaged French tourist.
The interior ministry said those arrested over the February attack were a French woman of Albanian origin, a British man of Egyptian descent, two Palestinians, a Belgian man of Tunisian descent and two Egyptians.
“(Police) were able, through information received and surveillance, to identify a group, some of them Egyptians and others foreigners, affiliated with Al-Qaeda… and seven of them were arrested,” it said in a statement.
An Egyptian minister had on Monday announced the arrest of suspects over the February 22 attack in the famed Khan al-Khalili bazaar, but gave no details on the number detained.
A French girl was killed and 24 people, mostly tourists, were injured in the bombing, the first deadly attack on tourists in Egypt since 2006.
The ministry said members of the cell, which called itself the Islamic Army of Palestine and was led by two Egyptians living abroad, were found in possession of weapons and explosives.
A security official told AFP police were searching for other members of the cell.
“It’s a big organisation and there are still people at large,” the official said.
The ministry said the militants had also planned operations abroad.
“(The cell) worked on organising terrorist operations in the country and outside,” it said, without saying when the arrests were made.
Police have been vague about the timing of the arrests, with one official saying the suspects were arrested more than a month ago.
Security officials and analysts say the interior ministry, headed by Habib el-Adli, has been under great pressure to find the attackers.
The Belgian suspect told police during interrogation that he had been instructed to accompany Al-Qaeda operatives from Belgium to France to launch an attack there, it said.
The ministry said some cell members had travelled to the Gaza Strip through cross-border smuggling tunnels to receive military training there.
Some suspects said they had also been instructed to attack tourist resorts and fuel pipelines in the Sinai peninsula, the statement said.
Egypt saw a spate of deadly bombings, which killed dozens of tourists and Egyptians, in Sinai resorts on the Red Sea between 2004 and 2006 which the authorities blamed on militants loyal to Al-Qaeda.
On May 10, a small bomb hidden in a car detonated outside a Cairo church, without causing casualties. A security official told AFP that it was similar to the one used in the Khan el-Khalili attack, but police were not linking the two.
A security official told AFP that police believed the Khan el-Khalili attack was the first in Egypt with organisational links to Al-Qaeda.
“This is a big issue, it’s the first time we can say Al-Qaeda is in Egypt,” he said.
Montassar al-Zayat, a former Islamist who has represented suspects in terrorism cases, dismissed the accusation of links between the cell and the loose network of Islamist militants led by the Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden.
“Can you say what exactly is Al-Qaeda, to speak of Al-Qaeda links?” he asked.