By Samer al-Atrush and Ines Bel Aiba

CAIRO — Twenty-three people, mostly Coptic Christians, died in clashes Sunday between Coptic Christians and Egyptian security forces, the health ministry said, sparking fears of renewed sectarian strife.

A total of 174 people were injured in violence during a Coptic Christian protest in central Cairo, which saw a curfew imposed on the centre of the capital, said official statements broadcast on public television.

A previous toll had put the number of dead at 16 protesters and three soldiers, and 156 injured.

The killings in Cairo prompted an urgent appeal from Prime Minister Essam Sharaf for Egypt's Muslims and minority Christians "not to give in to sedition because it is a fire which burns up everybody."

A curfew was imposed from 2:00 am (0000 GMT Monday) to 7:00 am in the area from Maspero to Abbassiya square in central Cairo, said a banner broadcast on television Sunday night.

The rampage erupted during a demonstration in the Maspero district on the Nile, an AFP correspondent said after counting bodies at a Coptic hospital.

Amid scenes of mayhem at the hospital filled with grieving relatives, a priest named Daud told AFP at least five of those killed were mowed down by a speeding army vehicle.

"Here is the brain" of one of them, he said, pointing to white matter in a plastic bag next to the body and disfigured face of a dead man. "Wael, wake up my dear Wael. Speak to me," sobbed his sister in despair.

Other bodies bore gunshot wounds.

State television reported that three soldiers were shot dead and dozens of their comrades wounded as angry Copts wielding batons protested over the burning of a church in southern Egypt last month.

"They fired at my colleague. He was standing next to me... Christians, sons of dogs," one wounded soldier said on the television.

Later Sunday night, hundreds of Muslims and Coptic Christians exchanged blows and threw stones at the hospital treating the wounded from the earlier clashes, an AFP journalist witnessed.

The hospital morgue housed the bodies of those killed.

Some 200 to 300 protesters marched on the hospital to meet up with several hundred Christians already gathered there, including family members of the dead and wounded.

Several cars were set on fire in a wide street next to the hospital, and Coptic protesters were tapping the cars to make petrol bombs.

"God is with us, Christ is with us. They want that it (the state) be Islamic, but we will not leave," said one of the demonstrators.

The Muslim protesters, for their part, chanted: "Islamic, Islamic", of their view for the Egyptian state.

Social networking sites such as Twitter said the earlier clashes were caused by provocation by thugs at the scene, while state television was accused of fanning anti-Coptic sentiment.

"What is taking place are not clashes between Muslims and Christians but attempts to provoke chaos and dissent," the prime minister said on his Facebook page.

"This is not befitting the children of the homeland who remain and will remain a single hand against the forces of vandalism... and extremism," Sharaf said.

The protesters clashed with anti-riot police and soldiers guarding the state television building, after thousands took part in a protest march from the Shobra district.

A standoff degenerated as the demonstrators started hurling stones and set fire to two cars, an AFP correspondent said. The television channel said an army vehicle was burnt.

Security forces fired into the air to disperse the crowd, sending dozens of people into flight.

"Down with the marshal," the demonstrators chanted on the march to Maspero, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi who took power in February after president Hosni Mubarak's ouster in the face of mass street protests.

Hundreds of Copts also took part in a protest last Tuesday outside the state television building in protest at the September 30 burning of the church in the southern province of Aswan and demanding that its governor be sacked.

The church in Merinab village was attacked after Aswan governor Mustafa al-Seyyed was reported as saying Copts had built it without the required planning permission, according to state television.

Sectarian clashes are frequent in Egypt where the largest Coptic minority has often been the target of attack and repeatedly accuses the authorities of systematic discrimination.

Fifteen people died in clashes on May 7 after Muslim protesters attacked two churches because they believed the Christians were detaining a Muslim convert.

The attacks threatened to push Egypt's precarious religious tensions to the brink, prompting the caretaker cabinet to pledge it would reopen closed churches and ease building restrictions.

Copts make up roughly 10 percent of the country's 80 million people and they complain of state-sanctioned discrimination, including a law that requires presidential permission for church construction.

They have also been the targets of frequent attacks, the deadliest in January when a suicide bomber killed at least 20 people outside an Alexandria church.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.