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Powerful bombing at Egypt police station kills 15

Wednesday - 12/25/2013, 5:36am  ET

An Egyptian man makes his way through rubble at the scene of an explosion at a police headquarters building that killed at least a dozen people, wounded more than 100, and left scores buried under the rubble, in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013. The country's interim government accused the Muslim Brotherhood of orchestrating the attack, branding it a "terrorist organization." No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, which came a day after an al-Qaida-inspired group called on police and army personnel to desert or face death at the hands of its fighters. (AP Photo/Ahmed Ashraf)

MAGGIE MICHAEL
Associated Press

MANSOURA, Egypt (AP) -- A powerful blast ripped through a police headquarters in an Egyptian Nile Delta city Tuesday while top security officials met to work out arrangements for an upcoming constitutional referendum, killing 15 people and wounding more than 100 in the deadliest bombing yet in a campaign of violence blamed on Islamic militants.

The attack underlined the vulnerability of Egypt's police and their weakness in keeping security amid fears of increased militant violence in the lead-up to the Jan. 14-15 referendum.

The vote is a key step in the country's political transition after the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July, but it has further stoked political tensions, with Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood protesting against the new charter.

Authorities quickly sought to pin blame for the blast on the Brotherhood, the military-backed interim government's top political nemesis. With the group continuing protests, the government has increasingly depicted it as directly behind the wave of violence, without providing evidence in public.

The attack hikes pressure on the government by anti-Islamists to take tougher action against the group, including enforcing a court-ordered ban on it, possibly declaring it a terrorist organization and passing a controversial harsh new anti-terrorism law. The Brotherhood condemned the attack and accused the government of scapegoating it.

At the funeral for the victims of the blast, including 14 policemen and a civilian, hundreds massed in a main square of the city of Mansoura where the bombing took place, chanting, "The people want to execute the Brotherhood."

They raised posters reading "no to terrorist groups" and pictures of military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who removed Morsi and is the country's most powerful figure. Some in the crowd set fire to the car of a man who flashed a pro-Morsi symbol and others attacked houses of Brotherhood leading member.

Egypt has seen an escalating campaign of spectacular bombings, drive-by shootings, assassinations and mass killings, mainly against security forces, in the aftermath of Morsi's ouster and the subsequent deadly crackdown on the Brotherhood, which that left hundreds dead and thousands injured. Thousands of Morsi supporters have been arrested -- that latest, Hesham Kandil, the prime minister during Morsi's presidency, who was reported arrested Tuesday to serve a previously issued one-year prison sentence.

Most attacks have been centered in the Sinai Peninsula, where multiple militant groups operate, but the insurgency has been spreading to the capital Cairo and heavily populated Delta.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday's blast, but senior military and security officials said it carried the fingerprints of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or the Champions of Jerusalem, which has emerged as the main Sinai-based militant group. The group has claimed most of the biggest attacks the past months, including a failed attempt to assassinate the interior minister in Cairo in September. Only days earlier, the group threatened more attacks, saying it considers Egyptian troops and police to be infidels because they answer to the secular-leaning military-backed government.

The bombing at the security headquarters in Mansoura -- a provincial capital 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Cairo that is considered a stronghold for the Brotherhood -- was the most significant yet outside the Sinai. The same building had been targeted in July, when an explosive planted outside killed a policeman and wounded another.

Tuesday's 1:10 a.m. blast brought down an entire section and side wall of the five-floor building. Dozens of parked cars and police vehicles were incinerated, and several nearby buildings were damaged, including a bank and theater. Windows of nearby houses were shattered.

Fifteen people were killed and 100 people were injured, Health Ministry spokesman Mohammed Fatahallah said. Two top officers were among the dead, and Mansoura's security chief was injured, losing an eye, the state news agency MENA reported.

Security officials were still trying to determine how the attack was carried out. The senior security and military officials said it may have involved a suicide bomber in an explosives-laden pick-up truck, possibly with more explosives planted outside the building. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.

They said that the attack shows "negligence" by police to protect themselves -- as well as the possibility that the attackers had inside information -- since it came as top provincial police officials were meeting to discuss security arrangements during the referendum. One security official said the military and police are struggling to track militants because of new recruits among Islamic extremists who have no previous records and files.

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