EL-ARISH, Egypt: The Egyptian military said Monday it foiled an attempted car bombing that was likely targeting an abandoned church or a nearby military camp under construction along the Egypt-Gaza border.
Military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said in a statement that security forces learned that militants were preparing a car bomb late Sunday in a deserted part of the city of Rafah, which borders Gaza.
Three military vehicles raided the site, forcing the suspected militants to flee, some by foot and others in an unmarked pick-up truck. They left behind a vehicle packed with explosives, bullet casings, and a rocket-propelled grenade, the spokesman said.
Ali said it was not immediately clear what the militants intended to attack, but that officials suspected the target was likely an abandoned church or nearby a military camp used by police and border guards.
Egypt's Copts were celebrating Christmas on Monday, and the potential violence against a church on the holiday is unsettling for a community already anxious about the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt following the uprising that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
Many of Rafah's Coptic Christians fled their homes last year after receiving threats from suspected Islamic militants, who have been active in Sinai since security has crumbled in the peninsula in post-revolutionary Egypt. And the city's Holy Family Church, which is built on the site where Christians believe the Holy Family first stopped to rest after crossing into Egypt, has been attacked several times over the past two years. The church has not been in use since the uprising.
The military said it suspects the gunmen preparing the car bomb are from the Gaza Strip and entered Egypt illegally through underground tunnels, according to the spokesman. He did not provide evidence or say what that conclusion was based on.
Gaza has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the militant Hamas group took power there in 2007. Egyptian security agencies often turn a blind eye to the smuggling of goods to Gaza, which ranges from cars to diapers to food, but have come down harder on weapons smuggling.
Egyptian authorities seized six U.S.-made missiles in northern Sinai on Friday that security officials said were likely smuggled from Libya and bound for the Gaza.
Islamic militants in north Sinai have launched a series of attacks on security forces in Egypt since Mubarak's fall, most recently against a policeman who was shot dead in the main city of el-Arish over the weekend. The deadliest single attack took place in August when gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a military post not far from the Israeli border. There have also been cross-border attacks into neighboring Israel.
Meanwhile, airport officials said U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers had arrived to Cairo Sunday for two days of meetings to discuss security problems in Sinai.