Supporters of Mubarak open fire on protesters camped in Cairo’s Tahrir square overnight,
in what witnesses called an attempted government-backed crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations
Soldiers take position just outside Cairo’s main square,
Egypt, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011
Photo By Sebastian Scheiner
Supporters of President Hosni Mubarak early Thursday opened fire on protesters demanding he step down, killing five and wounding dozens more in what many saw as an attempted government-backed crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.
“Most of the casualties were the result of stone throwing and attacks with metal rods and stick,” Health Minister Ahmed Samih Farid told state television by telephone, after fresh fighting broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir square. “At dawn today there were gunshots. The real casualties taken to hospital were 836, of which 86 are still in hospital and there are five dead.”
Anti-government demonstrators carry an injured man
at a makeshift medical triage station at Tahrir square
in Cairo February 2, 2011
The Egyptian army began arresting people in the wake of the violence, Al Arabiya television reported, without giving numbers.
Anti-government protesters camped out in the square since a peaceful protest on Tuesday have called on the army to intervene. When the violence erupted on Wednesday soldiers had not intervened.
Mubarak promised on Tuesday to surrender power when elections are held in September, in what was seen as an attempt to defuse the unprecedented challenge to his 30-year-rule, but angering protesters who want him to quit immediately and prompted the Western world to demand an immediate transition to democracy.
The Egyptian army told reformists on Wednesday to abandon their street protests. Thousands came out anyway and were met with supporters of the president, who charging on camels and horses, threw petrol bombs and attacked protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Anti-Mubarak demonstrators hurled stones in return and witnesses said that the attackers were police in plainclothes. The Egyptian Interior Ministry denied the accusation, and the Egyptian government rejected international calls for Mubarak to end his rule now.
At least three people were killed in Wednesday’s violence and a doctor at the scene said more than 1,500 were wounded.
The protesters were still holding their ground in Tahrir (Liberation) Square late Wednesday, the hub for protests over oppression and economic hardship.
Skirmishes continued well into the night and there was sporadic gunfire, with blazes caused by firebombs. But by about 3 A.M. on Thursday the square had calmed down somewhat, gunfire rang out across the square about an hour later.
At least 145 people have been killed so far in the 10 days of demonstrations in Cairo, and more in protests across the country. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said up to 300 people may have died.
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman urged the 2,000 demonstrators bedding down in Tahrir Square to leave on Wednesday night, to observe the curfew to restore calm. He said the start of dialogue with the reformists and opposition depended on an end to street protests.
But protesters barricaded the square against pro-Mubarak supporters trying to penetrate the makeshift cordon.
“This place will turn into a slaughterhouse very soon if the army does not intervene,” Ahmed Maher, who saw pro-Mubarak supporters with swords and knives, told Reuters.
Opposition figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate, called on the army to intervene to stop the violence.
Urging protesters to clear the streets, the armed forces told them their demands had been heard. But some were determined to occupy the square until Mubarak quits.
Khalil, a man in his 60s holding a stick, blamed Mubarak supporters and undercover security men for the clashes. “We will not leave,” he told Reuters. “Everybody stay put,” he added.
“I’m inspired by today’s events, however bloody and violent they are, and I will stay with my brothers and sisters in Tahrir until I either die or Mubarak leaves the country,” said medical student Shaaban Metwalli, 22, as night closed in.
Most reporters fled the square, with only a few remaining who had managed to find relatively safe observation points in some of the homes at the square’s periphery. Groups of Egyptians attempted to enter the embattle square from the northern entrance near the Egyptian National Museum, while anti-Mubarak protesters collided with them, trying to push them back. Photographers attempting to document the events returned injured and battered to the hotel. French and Spanish teams of journalists searched for missing friends.
Wednesday afternoon, roughly an hour after the fighting in the square began, the government ironically restored partial internet access, six days after it was shut down. On the one hand, I was reconnected to the electronic world, but physically I was trapped in the hotel.
One of the hotel technicians accompanied me to my room to fix the connection to my computer, and through the window we could hear pro-Mubarak slogan. The ever-smiling Mahmoud, who had already helped me overcome connection challenges and ensured that my articles reached Haaretz safely looked outside and smiled. “It’s good that people are supporting Mubarak,” he told me. “It is thanks to him that we have a flourishing and stable economy. Why would we want to risk that?”
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