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20 Die in Religious Riots in Egypt

January 3, 2000

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Egyptian security forces quelled three days of religious rioting and looting that left at least 20 dead in southern Egypt, officials said today.

Coptic Bishop Wissa, whose parish includes several of the villages hit by the unrest, said today that the dead all were Christians from el-Kusheh, a village of 23,000 at the center of the unrest. It is located 275 miles south of Cairo.

The Interior Ministry, which had earlier put the death toll at eight, later released a statement reported by the local Middle East News Agency confirming 20 people were killed in el-Kusheh. It also said 44 people were injured and buildings and vehicles were torched.

The area was reported quiet and under curfew today. Authorities had closed it off to outsiders.

The violence was sparked Friday in el-Kusheh by an earlier dispute between a Muslim street vendor and a Christian shopkeeper. It later spread to the nearby villages of Dar el-Salam and Awlad Toq West.

Witnesses in Dar el-Salam said protesters claiming Christian attacks against Muslims smashed and burned scores of Christian-owned shops and offices. They said police opened fire to disperse the protesters, some of whom fired back, and that more forces were called to restore order.

According to Wissa, who uses only one name, a church and 50 houses, shops and warehouses were burned in Awlad Toq West.

``Barbaric people carrying rifles went on a rampage and started firing at Christian shops and Christian houses,″ he said. He said the area was quiet today under a heavy security presence.

The Interior Ministry said el-Kusheh residents exchanged gunfire from their rooftops.

``Security organs have controlled and contained the situation between the two disputed parties,″ the Interior Ministry said in a statement. The government blamed ``criminal and violence-seeking elements who manipulated conflicting reactions between Muslims and Christians on business matters.″

Security forces arrested several instigators and some people who took part in the rioting in el-Kusheh, the statement said. Fires set in shops were extinguished, and authorities confiscated cars carrying looted items, the ministry said.

The office of regional Gov. Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Bakr said he traveled to the site today to meet with Muslim and Christian religious leaders.

Wissa said Pope Shenuda, the Coptic patriarch, dispatched a fact-finding mission of two bishops who met with the governor, toured el-Kusheh and talked to witnesses.

The groundwork for the trouble was laid Wednesday in el-Kusheh, when Fayez Awad, a Muslim street vendor, tried to purchase some textiles on credit from Rashad Fahim Mansour, a Christian shop owner. Mansour allegedly refused and insulted Awad.

According to authorities, Awad returned Friday with one or two of his brothers. When Mansour refused to apologize for insulting him, the men started shooting, injuring three farmers passing by on donkeys, authorities said.

El-Kusheh gained international attention in 1998 because of allegations of police brutality toward Christians.

Coptic Christians are the largest religious minority in mainly Muslim Egypt, making up 10 percent of the population of 64 million. El-Kusheh is 75 percent Coptic.

Update hourly