Alexandria, Jan 01(Agencies): A powerful bomb exploded in front of a crowded Coptic Christian church a half hour into the New Year early on Saturday, hitting worshippers emerging from a holiday Mass in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and killing at least 21 people in an attack that raised suspicions of an al-Qaida role.

The attack came in the wake of repeated threats by al-Qaida militants in Iraq to attack Egypt's Christians. A direct al-Qaida 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-Qaida 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 suicide bomber who blew himself up among the crowd.

Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the New Year's Mass at the Saints Church, said Father Mena Adel, a priest who attended. The service had just ended, and worshippers were leaving the building when the bomb went off about a half-hour after midnight, he said.

"The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf," Marco Boutros, a 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital bed.

Bodies of many of the dead were collected from the street and kept inside the church overnight before they were taken away on Saturday by ambulances for burial amid scenes of grief and anger.

"This attack targets Egypt's security as a whole," said Bishop Armia, a senior aide to Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Church.

Senior Health Ministry official Osama Abdel-Moneim said the death toll stood at 21, with 79 wounded. It was not immediately known if all the victims were Christians.

After the early Saturday blast, angry Christians clashed with police and Muslim residents, chanting,

"With our blood and soul, we redeem the cross," witnesses said.
Police initially said the blast came from an explosives-packed vehicle parked about four metres from the church. But the Interior Ministry said later in a statement that there was no sign that the epicentre was a car. That, it said, "makes it likely that the explosives ... were carried on the person of a suicide attacker who died with the others."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast. Alexandria Governor Adel Labib immediately blamed al-Qaida, pointing to recent threats by the terror group to attack Christians in Egypt.

He offered no evidence to support his claim, but a recent spate of attacks blamed on al-Qaida against Christians in Iraq has an unusual connection to Egypt.

Christians, mainly Orthodox Copts, are believed to make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's mainly Muslim population of nearly 80 million people, and they have grown increasingly vocal in complaints about discrimination.

There have been occasional attacks targeting Christians and churches.