Archive photo of Suez Canal.
Archive photo of Suez Canal. Photo by AP
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Funeral prayer held for off-duty policemen who were killed near Rafah, North Sinai, August 19, 2013. Photo by AP

Egypt has arrested three people who opened machine gun fire on a ship passing through the Suez Canal, an army source said on Sunday, playing down what the waterway's chief described as a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, Egyptian security forces reported apprehending a top wanted militant with links to Al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula.

During Saturday's unsuccessful attack, the Panamanian-registered container ship COSCO ASIA came under fire in a northern section of the Suez Canal, a major global trade artery which is secured by the Egyptian armed forces.

"There was an attempt to disrupt security in an area called el-Qantara as they fired at a ship in an attempt to halt (traffic on) the waterway," said the army source.

"Three were arrested and they have been dealt with ... This attack could not have harmed the ships," the source said, without giving any details except that an investigation was underway.

On Saturday, the head of the Suez Canal, Mohab Memish, said a terrorist had carried out the operation, suggesting Islamist militants could have been behind it. Suez Canal Authority sources said a rocket-propelled grenade had been used in the attack.

The sources said that even if a grenade had struck the ship, it would have had a limited impact. The aim, they said, was to create a media frenzy and hurt Egypt's image.

Asked if the military suspected the attack was part of a broader campaign to disrupt the movement of ships, the army source said. "I don't think so because the Suez Canal is secured."

Any major attack on the Suez Canal would hammer Egypt's economy, which depends heavily on revenue from the 192-km (120 mile) waterway, the quickest sea route between Asia and Europe.

Egypt has faced a rising number of militant attacks on security forces in the nearby lawless North Sinai region after the army, prompted by mass protests, ousted the country's first elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, on July 3.

Growing insecurity in Sinai worries the United States because the area lies next to Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, as well as the Canal.

The Suez Canal Authority has received threats from unidentified groups which said they would target the waterway, security sources said. At one point the military blocked a bridge over the canal as a precautionary measure because of threats.

Ambush 'mastermind' arrested

Also on Saturday, Egypt detained a militant suspected of leading an Al-Qaida-linked group in an ambush where 25 off-duty policemen were lined up and shot on August 19, security officials said. The attack was one of the area's worst militant strikes on security forces.

The man, Adel Mohammed, also known as Adel Habara according to one official, has already been sentenced to death in absentia for killing soldiers in the Nile Delta last year.

Earlier Saturday, security officials said 31 suspected militants have been arrested since Thursday, including two caught seeking treatment for wounds sustained in clashes with police.

In other violence nearby, a riot police officer was shot in the chest Friday while on patrol in the city of El-Arish, the capital of North Sinai governorate, the Interior Ministry.

According to one security official, four militants have also been killed since Thursday. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Habara's arrest could potentially undermine militant activities in the area. The security official said two other suspects were arrested along with Habara.