Cairo (AP) - Clashes between Muslims and Christian in the Egyptian capital killed at least six people, security and hospital officials said Wednesday.
They said the clashes took place late Tuesday night and lasted several hours. The fighting involved the use of guns, clubs and knifes, they added. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The clashes began when several thousand Christians protested against the burning last week of a church in a Cairo suburb by a Muslim mob following a deadly clash between Muslims and Christians over a love affair between a Muslim and a Christian.
The Christian protesters on Tuesday blocked a vital highway, burning tires and pelting cars with rocks.
An angry crowd of Muslims set upon the Christians and the two sides fought pitched battles for about four hours. The six killed were believed to be mostly Christians who died of gunshot wounds.
Tuesday's clashes are the latest evidence of the security vacuum in Egypt that followed the ouster on Feb. 11 of President Hosni Mubarak at the end of 18 days of anti-government protests. The police have pulled out from Cairo and several other cities three days into the uprising and are yet to fully take back the streets, a fact that has unleashed a wave of violent crime and even lawlessness in some parts of the nation.
Mubarak handed power to the military when he stepped down but it does not have enough troops to police every street in Cairo, a sprawling city of some 18 million people that, at the best of times, looks like it is about to descend into chaos.
Even before Egypt's uprising unleashed a torrent of discontent, tensions had been growing between Christians and Muslims in this country of 80 million.
On New Year's Day, a suicide bombing outside a Coptic church in the port city of Alexandria killed 21 people, setting off days of protests. Barely a week later, an off-duty policeman boarded a train and shot dead a 71-year-old Christian man and wounding his wife and four others.
Egypt's ruling generals have pledged to rebuild the church torched last week and the country's new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, has met the protesters outside the TV building in downtown Cairo to reassure them that his interim government would not discriminate against them.
But the Christians were not appeased. At least 2,000 of them protested on the highway on Tuesday night and a separate crowd of several hundred has been camping out outside the TV building for days to voice their anger at what they perceive to be official discrimination against them.