Cairo: A Palestinian group on Saturday denied any involvement in the New Year`s church attack in Alexandria that killed more than 20 people.
Earlier in the day, Egypt`s Interior Minister Habib al-Adly accused the Palestinian group of having masterminded the New Year`s church attack.
The Palestinian group Army of Islam, "which has links to al Qaeda, is behind the attack on Al-Qiddissin church in Alexandria," Adly said in a speech to mark Police Day, carried live on state television.
President Hosni Mubarak took to the stage to congratulate the police "for finding the perpetrators of the terrorist act in Alexandria”.
In a swift response, the Army of Islam denied any involvement in the deadly attack.
"The Army of Islam has no relation, whether close or distant, to the attack on the Coptic church" in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, a spokesman for the group, who gave his name as Abu Muthanna, said.
"The Mossad (Israeli intelligence) was responsible for the attack."
An Egyptian security official said that five Egyptians were arrested around 10 days ago in Alexandria in connection with the attack.
"During questioning, the members of this group said that the planning of the attack had come from abroad," the source said.
Addressing senior officials and police force members, Mubarak said the attack on the church had tried to target Egypt`s unity and dismissed foreign calls for improved protection of the country`s Christians as "interference”.
"The latest attack in Alexandria, represents a pitiful attempt to bring (terrorism) back to Egypt", this time in "a bid to stir division between the Copts and the Muslims."
On January 01, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a church as worshippers emerged from a New Year`s Eve mass.
Egypt`s official MENA news agency on Sunday put the death toll at 23, with scores more wounded. Previously, the death toll stood at 21.
Later on Sunday, the Interior Ministry said an Egyptian had been arrested linked to the Army of Islam who confessed to having been contacted by the group which asked him to help its members sent to carry out the attack.
Ahmad Lotfi Ibrahim Mohammed, a university graduate and native of Alexandria born in 1984, had admitted in writing to his involvement, it said in a statement.
One day after the assault, Mubarak said the act was carried out by foreigners, an assertion he reiterated in his Police Day speech.
The Egyptian leader also lashed out at Western countries who called for more protection for the country`s Christian minority.
Egypt`s Christians, who make up 10 percent of the 80-million population, have been the target of several attacks and have repeatedly accused the authorities of systematic discrimination.
"The Constitution has laid out principles of citizenship as the basis for equality of all Egyptians in their rights and duties," Mubarak said.
"I say to those, some from friendly countries, who call for the protection of Copts of Egypt, I say to them that the time for foreign protection and tutelage is gone ... We will not accept any pressure or interference."
The Palestinian group accused of perpetrating the attack is a small outfit that espouses Salafist ideals, an austere form of Sunni Islam that seeks a return to the practices of the faith`s early days.
Hamas reportedly cut ties with the Army of Islam in 2007, when the group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston.
But on Sunday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum defended the Salafist group against Egypt`s charges. "We confirm that the Zionist Mossad is behind the church crime in Alexandria," he said.
"Our weapons are directed at the Zionist enemy and the conflict arena with that enemy is inside Palestine," he added, insisting that "al Qaeda does not exist in Gaza at all”.
No one has claimed responsibility for the Alexandria church attack, which followed threats to Egypt`s Copts from the al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that claimed an October 31 attack on a Baghdad church.
In December, six Copts were gunned down as they came out of a Christmas mass in the southern city of Naga Hammadi.