CAIRO - An Egyptian criminal court on Wednesday sentenced 26 militants to death for founding a “terror group” that aimed to target ships in the Suez canal, judicial sources said. Prosecutors also accused the defendants of making rockets and explosives while monitoring various security headquarters to plan attacks on them, the sources said.The defendants were condemned for “founding and leading a terror group that aimed to attack people’s freedom, damage national unity and (attack) the Suez canal waterway”, according to one source.The court referred the verdict to the mufti, a top Islamic official who under Egyptian law has to validate the sentence, and set March 19 for the final verdict. The defendants have the right to appeal.The sources gave no further details about the group, nor about the alleged plot to target ships in the Suez canal, one of the world’s busiest petroleum shipping channels. An Al-Qaeda-inspired group, Furqan Brigades, attacked vessels passing through the canal last year and have vowed to conduct more attacks in the future.However it was not clear if those sentenced on Wednesday are linked to that group. At nearly 200 kilometres (125 miles) long, the Suez canal is owned by Egypt but governed by an international treaty that guarantees free navigation. It provides a vital link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.Since the military ousted president Mohamed Morsi in July, militants have stepped up their attacks on security forces, killing scores of policemen and soldiers.To combat the growing militancy, the army has poured troops into the mountainous and underdeveloped northern Sinai Peninsula, where most of the attacks have been taking place.Jihadist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem) has claimed most of the deadliest attacks in Egypt since Morsi’s ouster, saying they were to avenge the crackdown by security forces.More than 1,400 people have been killed in the crackdown, according to rights group Amnesty International, and thousands have been jailed.Meanwhile, Egyptian army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will keep his post as defence minister in a new government, an official source said on Wednesday, quashing speculation he was about to announce a widely expected bid for the presidency. Sisi is tipped to win the upcoming presidential election but has yet to announce his candidacy. He must vacate the post of defence minister in order to run. The source said he would likely keep that job until an election law is finalised. “He is expected to continue in his post until all the issues regarding the election laws are resolved,” the source said.Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi’s government resigned on Monday in a surprise move that has not been clearly explained. Many of Beblawi’s ministers were reappointed on Wednesday by Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim Mahlab, the outgoing housing minister who was asked on Tuesday to form the new cabinet.They included Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, a leading figure in state efforts to fight militant attacks that have soared since the army deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July following mass protests against his rule. Ibrahim survived an assassination attempt last September.Sisi, 59, is widely seen as the most powerful figure in the army-backed administration installed after Morsi’s removal.He enjoys strong support among Egyptians who were glad to see the overthrow of Morsi, who was freely elected president in 2012. But to Morsi’s Islamist supporters, he is the mastermind of a coup that led to a bloody state crackdown.Mahlab said on Tuesday that fighting militant attacks would be a priority for his government. Shootings and bombings, mostly targeting the security forces, have become commonplace since Morsi’s removal.Pointing to the wider risks, an Egyptian court sentenced 26 people to death on Wednesday for plotting attacks on ships passing through the Suez Canal - a vital artery of world shipping. The defendants were tried in absentia.Mahlab, a former official in deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, also reappointed Oil Minister Sherif Ismail and Planning Minister Ashraf al-Arabi.There was no immediate word on who would take the ministries of finance or foreign affairs.Mahlab is a civil engineer who formerly headed one of Egypt’s biggest construction firms.Hisham Zaazou, tourism minister in the Beblawi government, also kept his position. Tourism is one of the most important industries in Egypt but has been hammered in the last three years of turmoil.Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour, minister of trade and industry in the Beblawi government, was appointed minister of a consolidated ministry merging trade and investment.Cabinet sources said at least 14 of the ministers who served in Beblawi’s 36-member cabinet would stay on. Four of the ministerial posts were either canceled or merged into other portfolios.