CAIRO – Angry partisans of President Hosni Mubarak stormed a crowded anti-regime rally in a central Cairo square on Wednesday, sparking pandemonium in which at least 500 people were hurt, witnesses said.
The White House, which has called for restraint since demonstrations broke out nine days ago, deplored the violence against “peaceful protesters” while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the attacks on protesters were “unacceptable.”
Supporters from both sides threw stones and battled with sticks and fists in Tahrir square, the epicentre of nine days of protests, in the clashes that broke out early afternoon and were continuing after sunset.
Tension had been rising from early morning when pro-Mubarak supporters began staging their own rallies around Cairo, saying the president represented stability amid growing insecurity, and calling those who want his departure “traitors.”
They also gathered for a rally near Tahrir Square, where thousands of anti-regime supporters pressed on with their campaign to demand the 82-year-old president step down immediately.
Not satisfied with Mubarak’s insistence late Tuesday that he would serve out the rest of his term and ignoring army appeals for them to go home, the protesters vowed to stay in the square until he stepped down.
Witnesses and AFP correspondents said that bands of pro-Mubarak supporters without warning raided the square early afternoon, some on camels and horses, creating mayhem that quickly degenerated into violent clashes.
At least six riders were dragged from their beasts, beaten with sticks and taken away with blood streaming down their faces.
The worst of the fighting was just outside the world famous Egyptian Museum, which was targeted by vandals last week.
Soldiers deployed in the square took cover from the projectiles after initially standing on tanks to appeal in vain for calm.
After sundown, with Molotov cocktails being thrown, troops opened up on the crowd with water hoses to disperse protesters. Two of the petrol bombs landed inside the grounds of the museum, which is home to a priceless collection of antiquities.
Tear gas was also fired, but it was not clear by whom.
AFP correspondents saw scores of wounded people being carried to a makeshift hospital set up at a mosque near Tahrir Square, while a medic there said the injury toll ran into the hundreds.
“There have been at least 500 wounded people, only here,” the medic told AFP. Others could have have been taken to other hospitals, he said.
Since the January 25 outbreak of unrest, at least 300 people have died and well over 3,000 have been hurt.
The renewed violence comes despite calls by close ally the United States and other nations for Egyptian authorities to allow anti-government protests to proceed peacefully, with both sides exercising restraint.
“The United States deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt, and we are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators. We repeat our strong call for restraint,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
Tensions rose after Mubarak addressed the nation late on Tuesday, pledging not to run for re-election in September after 29 years in power.
But Mubarak did not offer to step down immediately, the key demand of protesters who have flooded the streets of Egypt’s cities for nine straight days.
Despite years of ambiguity over whether he would seek a sixth term and his refusal until this week to even name a vice president, Mubarak insisted he had never intended to stay in office beyond this year.
“I say in all honesty, and without taking into consideration the current situation, I was not planning to present myself for a new presidential term,” he said.
Egypt is “the nation I have defended and in which I will die,” he said, rejecting the possibility he might flee as veteran Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did in January after a popular revolt ended his rule.
Mubarak said the country had a choice “between chaos and stability” after the clashes between protesters and security personnel.
“My first responsibility is now to bring security and stability to the nation to ensure a peaceful transition of power.”
Those remarks were seized upon by US President Barack Obama, who spoke to Mubarak after the speech, and announced on television that had told the Egyptian president an orderly transition needed to begin immediately.
“What is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” Obama said.
The European Union echoed that on Wednesday, with foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton urging Mubarak to act “as quickly as possible.”
But Egypt roundly rejected those demands in a statement from the foreign ministry.
“What foreign parties are saying about ‘a period of transition beginning immediately’ in Egypt is rejected,” as such calls seek to “inflame the internal situation in Egypt,” spokesman Hossam Zaki said in the statement.
So far, the only changes offered by Mubarak have been to seek to amend the constitution to impose terms limits on the presidency and to make it easier for people to run for the job.
Protesters have said they would proceed with plans for a massive protest on Friday, their designated “departure day” for Mubarak.
And the opposition Muslim Brotherhood said there was “no alternative” but ending Mubarak’s regime, rejecting his plans to leave after his mandate ends.
The US military’s top officer on Wednesday expressed “confidence” that Egypt’s army could provide security for their country.
In a phone conversation with his Egyptian counterpart, Lieutenant General Sami Enan, Admiral Mike Mullen “expressed his confidence in the Egyptian military’s ability to provide for their country’s security, both internally and throughout the Suez Canal area,” his spokesman Captain John Kirby said in a Washington statement.
The revolt in Egypt has sent jitters throughout the Middle East, coming after the uprising in Tunisia and with analysts warning of a domino effect through the Arab world.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, also facing demands that he quit, said on Wednesday he will freeze constitutional changes that would have allowed him to be president for life and delayed a controversial April poll.
In Jordan, King Abdullah II sacked his government after weeks of demands for change, while a Facebook group of Syrian youth called for a peaceful revolution to start on Friday.
And in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the uprising sweeping through Egypt could destabilise the region “for many years.”