CAIRO — Supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak charged into Cairo's central square on horses and camels brandishing whips while others rained firebombs from rooftops in what appeared to be an orchestrated assault against protesters trying to topple Egypt's leader of 30 years. Three people died and over 600 were injured.
The protesters accused Mubarak's regime of unleashing a force of paid thugs and plainclothes police to crush their unprecedented 9-day-old movement, a day after the 82-year-old president refused to step down. They showed off police ID badges they said were wrested from their attackers. Some government workers said their employers ordered them into the streets.
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Unrest could change our security reality"If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
The clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt's upheaval: the first significant violence between government supporters and opponents. The crisis took a sharp turn for the worse almost immediately after Mubarak rejected the calls for him to give up power or leave the country, stubbornly proclaiming he would die on Egyptian soil.
Mubarak's supporters turned up on the streets Wednesday in significant numbers for the first time. Some were hostile to journalists and foreigners. Two Associated Press correspondents and several other journalists were roughed up in Cairo. State TV had reported that foreigners were caught distributing anti-Mubarak leaflets, apparently trying to depict the movement as foreign-fueled.
After midnight, 10 hours after the clashes began, the two sides were locked in a standoff at a street corner, with the anti-Mubarak protesters hunkered behind a line of metal sheets hurling firebombs back and forth with government backers on the rooftop above. The rain of bottles of flaming gasoline set nearby cars and wreckage on the sidewalk ablaze.
The scenes of mayhem were certain to add to the fear that is already running high in this capital of 18 million people after a weekend of looting and lawlessness and the escape of thousands of prisoners from jails in the chaos.
Soldiers surrounding Tahrir Square fired occasional shots in the air throughout the day but did not appear to otherwise intervene in the fierce clashes and no uniformed police were seen. Most of the troops took shelter behind or inside the armored vehicles and tanks stationed at the entrances to the square.
"Why don't you protect us?" some
protesters shouted at the soldiers, who replied they did not have orders
to do so and told people to go home.
"The army is neglectful.
They let them in," said Emad Nafa, a 52-year-old among the protesters,
who for days had showered the military with affection for its neutral
Some of the worst street battles raged near the Egyptian
Museum at the edge of the square. Pro-government rioters blanketed the
rooftops of nearby buildings and hurled bricks and firebombs onto the
crowd below — in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum
grounds. Plainclothes police at the building entrances prevented
anti-Mubarak protesters from storming up to stop them.
sides pummeled each other with chunks of concrete and bottles at each of
the six entrances to the sprawling plaza, where 10,000 anti-Mubarak
protesters tried to fend off more than 3,000 attackers who besieged
them. Some on the pro-government side waved machetes, while the square's
defenders filled the air with a ringing battlefield din by banging
metal fences with sticks.
In one almost medieval scene, a small
contingent of pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels rushed into the
anti-government crowds, trampling several people and swinging whips and
sticks. Protesters dragged some riders from their mounts, throwing them
to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels
appeared to be ones used to give tourists rides around Cairo.
of men and women pried up pieces of the pavement with bars and ferried
the piles of ammunition in canvas sheets to their allies at the front.
Others directed fighters to streets needing reinforcements.
protesters used a subway station as a makeshift prison for the attackers
they managed to catch. They tied the hands and legs of their prisoners
and locked them inside. People grabbed one man who was bleeding from the
head, hit him with their sandals and threw him behind a closed gate.
protesters wept and prayed in the square where only a day before they
had held a joyous, peaceful rally of a quarter-million, the largest
demonstration so far.
Egyptian Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid
said three people died and at least 611 were injured in Tahir Square.
One of those killed fell from a bridge near the square; Farid said the
man was in civilian clothes but may have been a member of the security
Farid did not say how the other two victims, both young
men, were killed. It was not clear whether they were government
supporters or anti-Mubarak demonstrators.