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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt began the trial on Sunday of 25 men suspected of forming an Islamist militant group and murdering four Coptic Christians, judicial sources said, in a case reflecting official fears of resurgent militancy.
The general prosecutor says the Copts died during a robbery on their jewellery shop which was aimed at funding attacks, but a defence lawyer said nothing was stolen from their safe.
Cairo is concerned that al Qaeda-inspired militants could infiltrate from Yemen and Gaza to regroup and train Egyptians.
State authorities have long been wary of Islamist groups, cracking down after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and crushing an uprising by Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya and Egypt's Jihad in the 1990s.
The general prosecutor alleged the accused planned attacks on Christians, foreign tourists, and shipping in the Suez Canal.
Four of the suspects murdered the Coptic jewellers in May 2008, he said, while two are Palestinians charged with training their Egyptian counterparts and smuggling weapons through tunnels from Gaza.
The Zaytoun case, named after the district in Cairo where the jewellery shop was located, is among a series of militant trials held in the past year, following a renewed crackdown on youths whom the state suspects of militancy.
Analysts say the rising number of such cases precedes parliamentary debate on the emergency laws introduced after Sadat's assassination and since renewed periodically.
"The state may be paving the way for a further extension of emergency laws up for discussion in April," political analyst Diaa Rashwan told Reuters.
Police rounded up all the suspects by July last year, confiscating diving gear, a navigational device, electrical equipment and a remote-controlled vehicle.
"This case is a frame-up and points to the crisis the state security apparatus is facing and trying to fill," Mohammed Shabana, a lawyer representing 14 of the suspects, told Reuters.
Shabana said nothing was taken from the jewellers' safe and the motivation for the murder was more likely personal. "There is no clear evidence (to incriminate the suspects)," he said.
Analysts disagree on how much of a threat militancy poses for Egypt. Some see it as an imminent danger and others argue authorities have an interest in talking up the threat before parliamentary elections this year.
The state security supreme court scheduled the next hearing on March 20.