A powerful bomb, possibly from a homicide attacker, exploded in front of a Coptic Christian church as a crowd of worshippers emerged from a New Years Mass early Saturday, killing at least 21 people and wounding nearly 80 in an attack that raised suspicions of an Al Qaeda role.

The attack came in the wake of repeated threats by Al Qaeda militants in Iraq to attack Egypt’s Christians. A direct Al Qaeda hand in the bombing would be a dramatic development, as Egypt’s government has long denied that the terror network has a significant presence in the country. Al Qaeda in Iraq has already been waging a campaign of violence against Christians in that country.

Police initially said the blast came from an explosives-packed car parked outside the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city. But the Interior Ministry later said it was more likely from a bomber who blew himself up among the crowd.

Both tactics are hallmarks of Al Qaeda and have been rarely used in Egypt, where the government crushed an insurgency by Islamic militants in the 1990s. Though the government of President Hosni Mubarak denies an Al Qaeda presence, Egypt does have a rising movement of Islamic hard-liners who, while they do not advocate violence, adhere to an ideology similar in other ways to Al Qaeda.

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