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An Egyptian court sentenced 26 people to death Wednesday for forming a "terror group" to target ships passing through the Suez Canal, judicial sources said.
The death sentences on the defendants, all tried in absentia, came a day after the military-installed authorities named a new prime minister, who vowed to fight "terrorism" and lure back foreign investors and holidaymakers.
The Suez Canal links the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea and is a key trade route between Europe and Asia. It accounts for a huge chunk of Egyptian foreign exchange earnings and government income.
It also separates mainland Egypt from the lawless Sinai Peninsula, where the longstanding hostility to authority of Bedouin tribes has created fertile ground for Islamist militant groups.
The convictions all relate to offences allegedly committed between 2004 and 2009, before the Arab Spring uprising ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
They were for "founding and leading a terror group that aimed to attack people's freedom, damage national unity and (attack) the Suez Canal," the source said.
They were also convicted of possessing firearms and explosives, manufacturing rockets and carrying out surveillance of security force buildings in preparation for attacks.
The court referred the death sentences to the mufti, a top Muslim cleric who must approve all executions and has until March 19 to give his decision.
The defendants have the right to appeal.
A former state-sector construction boss and member of Mubarak's now disbanded National Democratic Party, Ibrahim Mahlab was named interim prime minister Tuesday.
He vowed to fight "terrorism" and bring back tourists as he began work on forming a new cabinet following the surprise Monday resignation of prime minister Hazem Al Beblawi.
"This will create the conditions for investment and the return of tourism," said Mahlab, who was Beblawi's housing minister.
Since the military ousted president Mohamed Morsi last July, militants based in the Sinai have stepped up attacks on security personnel, killing scores and severely denting tourism and investment.
The army has poured reinforcements into the arid, underdeveloped peninsula, but that has not stopped the jihadists from extending their attacks to other regions, including the heart of the capital.
Last year, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group, the Furqan Brigades, attacked vessels passing through the Suez Canal and vowed further such attacks.
Nearly 200 kilometres (125 miles) long, the Suez Canal is owned by Egypt but governed by an international treaty that guarantees free navigation.
A significant proportion of the world's oil and gas passes through the strategic waterway, from which Egypt earns toll income that has become all the more important as a result of a sharp drop in tourist numbers.
The canal earned 32.5 billion Egyptian pounds (nearly $4.6 billion/3.4 billion euros) for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, according to the head of the Suez Canal Authority, Mohab Mamish.
Meanwhile,the government said the number of tourist arrivals had plunged by almost 31 percent in December from a year earlier.
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