US, Iraq to evacuate nationals as Egypt revolt rages
CAIRO (AFP) – The United States and Iraq started organising Sunday the evacuation of their nationals from Egypt as an angry anti-government revolt raged into a sixth day amid increasing lawlessness and mass jail breaks.
“The US embassy in Cairo informs US citizens in Egypt who wish to depart that the department of state is making arrangements to provide transportation to safehaven locations in Europe,” an embassy statement said, as other countries issued travel warnings and scared tourists scrambled for flights out.
Iraq said it would lay on special flights to evacuate its citizens from Egypt where they had fled to escape violence in their own country.
The statements came as thousands of protesters again crowded Cairo’s Tahrir square, epicentre of the biggest demonstrations in Egypt in three decades, demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster despite his reform promises.
As troops manned checkpoints, frisking people for weapons before allowing them in, the square reverberated with the anti-Mubarak chants that have come to characterise the six-day popular revolt.
Amid a good-tempered atmosphere that was far from the chaotic scenes of the past two days, the demonstrators bore an army officer in uniform high on their shoulders, while army vehicles drove around with “No to Mubarak” spraypainted on their flanks in Arabic.
“Mubarak, go to Saudi Arabia,” the crowd shouted, encouraging the leader in power for 30 years to follow deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile.
With fears of insecurity rising and a death toll of at least 125, thousands of convicts broke out prisons across Egypt overnight after they overwhelmed guards or after prison personnel fled their posts.
An AFP correspondent saw 14 bodies in a mosque near Cairo’s Abu Zaabal prison, which a resident said were of two police and the rest convicts.
Shots rang out in the neighbourhood and a resident said that all the prisoners had escaped and many had been killed.
“There are many, many more bodies,” said a resident who asked not to be named.
Troops set up checkpoints on roads to riot-hit prisons, stopping and searching cars for escaped convicts.
Among those who escaped were senior members of Egypt’s main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as members of Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, some of whom made it back to the Gaza Strip via smuggling tunnels.
With rampant pillaging in more than five days of deadly protests, many Egyptians believe that the police have deliberately released prisoners in order to spread chaos and emphasise the need for the security forces.
“The government wants the people to think that Mubarak is the only option faced with the chaos,” said young demonstrator Sameh Kamal.
Groups of club-carrying vigilantes have deployed on Cairo’s streets to protect from looters amid growing insecurity as the Arab world’s most populous nation faced an uncertain future.
Youths handed over to the army those they suspected of looting, with the police who had been fighting running battles with stone-throwing protesters in the first days of the demonstrations hardly visible.
Many petrol stations are now running out of fuel, motorists said, and many bank cash machines have either been looted or are no longer working. Egyptian banks and the stock exchange have been ordered closed on Sunday.
Embattled Mubarak on Saturday named military intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his first-ever vice president and also a new premier, Ahmed Shafiq, but protesters dismissed the moves as too little, too late.
Both men are stalwarts of Egypt’s all-powerful military establishment.
Suleiman, 75, has spearheaded years of Egyptian efforts to clinch an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and tried so far in vain to mediate an inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
Shafiq, 69, is respected by the Egyptian elite, even among the opposition, and has often been mooted as a potential successor to Mubarak.
However protesters in Cairo on Sunday made it clear they believed the new appointees were mere Mubarak loyalists.
“Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, Ahmed Shafiq must go,” they yelled. “The regime has been in power for 30 years, that is enough.”
Mubarak, who went on television early Saturday to announce he would institute political and economic reforms, visited an army military operations centre on Sunday, a news ticker on state television said, without elaborating.
On Sunday, Egypt’s outgoing information minister Anas al-Fikki ordered the closure of Al Jazeera’s operations in Egypt after the pan-Arab satellite channel gave blanket coverage to the anti-government riots.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Jerusalem on Sunday that Israel is carefully watching developments in Egypt and its efforts are focused on maintaining the “stability and security” of the region.
The Rafah crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt was closed on Sunday, a Palestinian official told AFP, saying Egyptian officials had left the border following the spiralling political unrest.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon meanwhile called for “restraint, non-violence and respect for fundamental rights” in Egypt, addressing the African Union summit that opened in Addis Ababa.
The United States said Saturday that Mubarak should carry out “real reform” beyond a government reshuffle, as the US president met top aides on the crisis and anti-Mubarak protests spread to US cities.
President Barack Obama “reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights; and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform within Egypt,” a White House statement said.
With tanks taking up positions around the Cairo Museum to protect the priceless artefacts inside, concern also grew for foreign tourists stranded in the land of the Pharaohs.
Many countries have warned against all but essential travel to Egypt, while travel agents were scrambling to secure flights for tourists huddled at Cairo airport.