Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has appealed for calm after 24 people were killed in clashes between Coptic Christians and security forces in Cairo.

The clashes erupted after a protest against an attack on a church in Aswan province last week. Copts blame the attack on Muslim radicals.

Following an emergency cabinet meeting, Sharaf said the unrest between Christians and Muslims in Egypt threatens the country’s security.

“The most serious threat to the country’s security is tampering with national unity and the stirring of discord between Muslim and Christian sons of Egypt,” says Sharaf.

Sectarian tensions have increased in Egypt in recent months. Earlier, mainly Christian protesters clashed with security forces outside the state television building. The protesters were calling for the military council to sack the governor of Aswan. They also called for the sacking of the military council itself and in particular its chairman Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi.

Christians also accuse the government of not protecting them enough.

Copts make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population.