Chaos spreads around Cairo; looting gang fights rife

Anti-gov't protesters take over 'October 6' bridge; military, pro-Mubarak groups driven off overpass; at least 8 demonstrators shot dead.

october 6 bridge cairo 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
october 6 bridge cairo 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
CAIRO — Protesters and regime supporters fought in a second day of rock-throwing battles at a central Cairo square while new lawlessness spread around the city. New looting and arson erupted, and gangs of thugs supporting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attacked reporters, foreigners and rights workers while the army rounded up foreign journalists.
The government increasingly spread an image that foreigners were fueling the turmoil and supporting the tens of thousands in the street who for more than 10 days have demanded the immediate ouster of Mubarak, this country's unquestioned ruler for nearly three decades.
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"When there are demonstrations of this size, there will be foreigners who come and take advantage and they have an agenda to raise the energy of the protesters," Vice President Omar Suleiman said in an interview on state TV.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley condemned what he called "a concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo."
Lawlessness that had largely eased since the weekend flared anew. A fire raged in a major supermarket outside Sheikh Zayed, a suburb of the capital, and looters were ransacking the building. A residential building neighboring a 5-star hotel on the Nile River corniche was also ablaze, blocks away from Tahrir. Other fires erupted in the Cairo district of Shubra, north of the center, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Under an onslaught of international condemnation for Wednesday's assault on protesters by pro-Mubarak rioters that sparked the renewed wave of turmoil, the government offered a series of gestures trying to calm the fury.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
The prime minister apologized for Wednesday's assault and acknowledged it may have been organized. The vice president promised that the 82-year-old Mubarak's son Gamal would not run to succeed his father in presidential elections in September and offered to hold negotiations on the country's future even with the regime's biggest domestic enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the gestures appeared likely to be drowned out by the chaos around Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, which for the past 10 days has been the center of the unprecedented movement demanding Mubarak's immediate ouster. Protesters accuse the regime of organizing a force of paid thugs and police in civilian clothes to attack them Wednesday afternoon, sparking the violence that still raged after nightfall Thursday.
At least eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the fighting in and around Tahrir.
Thursday's fighting centered on and under a highway overpass about 500 yards (meters) north of the square's center that pro-government attackers had used as a high ground to rain down stones and firebombs. Anti-Mubarak protesters surged from the square in the afternoon in volleys of stones, bottles and metal rebar, chasing their foes around the fly-over.
At one point, a police truck barreled wildly through the crowds under the bridge, mowing down several people in its path, according to footage aired on Al-Jazeera. Heavy barrages of gunfire were heard from time to time, and at least one wounded person was carried away.
In the morning, the military took its first muscular action to halt the fighting after standing by without interfering since the fighting began. They moved after heavy barrages of automatic gunfire over the course of two hours before dawn killed five protesters in a serious escalation.
Four tanks cleared the highway overpass and several hundred soldiers on the streets below lined up between the two sides, pushing the pro-government fighters back and blocking the main battle lines in front of the famed Egyptian Museum and at other entrances to the square. For several hours after, more protesters streamed into the square to support those who had fought through the night.
But when clashes resumed in the afternoon, soldiers disappeared from the streets, moving inside their tanks and armored vehicles without intervening again. Every once in a while, protesters would wrestle a Mubarak supporter to the ground, search him for an ID, then raise the card in the air to prove he was a police officer or ruling party member.
The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force the president out by Friday. In a speech Tuesday night, Mubarak refused to step down immediately, saying he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term — a halfway concession rejected by the protesters.
A sense of victory ran through the protesters Thursday after they succeeded in keeping their hold on the square and pushing back their attackers.