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Egypt says thwarts suicide attack on foreign embassy

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian security forces thwarted an al Qaeda-linked group's plan to carry out a suicide attack on a foreign embassy and captured several militants, the interior minister said on Saturday.

Mohamed Ibrahim, speaking in a televised news conference, declined to say which embassy had been targeted. He named three suspected members of the cell now under arrest.

"The Interior Ministry was able to direct a qualitative blow to a terrorist cell that was planning suicide operations against vital, important and foreign facilities in the country," he said.

One of the captured militants had travelled to Pakistan and Iran to receive training, and was a member of al Qaeda in Algeria, Ibrahim said. An Algerian al Qaeda leader claimed responsibility for a January siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 37 foreign hostages were killed.

Security in Egypt has deteriorated since a 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, whose three-decade rule was marked by fierce crackdowns on militant Islamists.

Armed Islamist groups have expanded into the Sinai Peninsula in the wake of the revolt, but militancy has been less apparent in the Nile Delta, where the overwhelming majority of the population is concentrated.

The interior ministry has been widely criticised for failing to restore security and for heavy-handed tactics in dealing with protests against the elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

In August, 16 Egyptian border guards were killed by militant attacks in Sinai.

Last month, Egypt postponed the trial of 26 alleged Islamist militants including two former military officers for planning attacks against the state.

Ibrahim said that group - known as the Nasr City cell - were connected to the militants whose arrest was announced on Saturday but did not give details.

Ibrahim repeatedly said the group did not represent an al Qaeda cell in Egypt, but said it was linked to al Qaeda in western Asia and "elements responsible for receiving terrorist elements on the Turkish borders" - an allusion to militants overseeing the flow of Islamist fighters into Syria's civil war.

He said the arrested men had been found in possession of statements issued by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and 10 kg (22 pounds) of aluminium nitrate, which is used to make bombs.

Egypt, one of two Arab countries to sign peace deals with Israel, was the target of Islamist militants for decades before the uprising. Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian. (Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)