CAIRO // Thousands of Egyptian Christians went on a rampage yesterday after six members of their ancient community were gunned down as they left midnight Mass for Coptic Christmas in a southern town. A Muslim guard was also killed, and nine others wounded, including three in serious condition. The eruption of violence in Nag Hamadi, a mixed Christian-Muslim town with a history of religious tensions, served as a reminder of the government's chronic failure to address sectarian strains in the society at a time when Islamic militancy is gaining ground. Yesterday's violence began when Christians smashed ambulances outside the town's main hospital in frustration over delays in turning over the bodies for burial. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Clashes resumed after the burial services, with angry Copts smashing shop windows, chasing Muslims off the streets and bringing down street light poles. The violence followed an attack in which three gunmen in a car opened up with automatic guns on a crowd leaving a church in Nag Hamadi, about 40 miles north of the ancient ruins of Luxor.
The head of provincial security, Mahmoud Gohar, said security was beefed up in the town and neighbouring villages, and checkpoints were set up in the area as tensions ran high among the town's Christian population. Mr Gohar said an angry crowd from a nearby church smashed two police cars shortly after the attack. A search for the gunmen was underway, but no arrests had been made by late yesterday.