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Riot police in Egyptian cities fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of anti-regime protesters who flooded out of Friday prayers demanding an end to decades of corruption and oppression.
Police were deployed in strength around the most populous Arab nation that has been rocked by protests since Tuesday, firing warning shots and using water cannon in a bid to quash the rising tide of popular anger.
Leading dissident Mohamed ElBaradei was among a crowd of around 2,000 targeted by police in a central Cairo square after Friday prayers on the fourth day of nationwide protests in which at least seven people have died.
Nobel laureate ElBaradei returned to Egypt late Thursday, having said he would be prepared to lead a transitional authority if he were asked and should veteran President Hosni Mubarak, in power for over 30 years, step down.
Protesters in Cairo were seen being dragged away and pushed into police vans, as others defied a heavy police presence and made their way to the central Tahrir square, where tens of thousands had gathered on Tuesday.
Protesters in second city Alexandria threw stones at police who opened fire with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets after prayers ended with cries of “God is greatest” followed by “We don’t want him,” referring to Mubarak.
The crowd attacked police vans, torching one, after a civilian had most of his hand blown away, allegedly by police.
In the Delta city of Mansura, hundreds took to the streets chanting “Down with Mubarak” as they emerged from Friday prayers, heavily outnumbered by security forces.
Some imams had encouraged worshippers to “go out and seek change,” an AFP correspondent reported.
Authorities cut most mobile phone and Internet services in a bid to thwart the growing protests, but a founder of the April 6 movement spearheading demonstrations said it was too late to staunch the anger.
“We’ve already announced the meeting places,” Israa Abd el Fatah told AFP. “So we’ve done it, we no longer need means of communication.”
Egypt’s largest opposition group, the banned Muslim Brothers have also joined the biggest uprising in decades despite the government warning that decisive measures would be taken to crush the protests.
At least 20 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested overnight Friday, including five former members of parliament, the group’s lawyer Abdelmoneim Abdel Maqsoud told AFP.
Cell phone text messaging was cut late Thursday while Internet services, which had been patchy during the night, were completely severed early Friday, cutting off access to networking sites Facebook and Twitter — key communications’ tools used by organisers of the protests.
“The desire for change must be respected,” ElBaradei, a vocal critic of Mubarak, said late Thursday. “The regime must not use violence in the demonstrations.”
The nationwide demonstrations, inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia, have swelled into the largest uprising in three decades, sending shockwaves across the region.
Seven people have been killed — five protesters and two policemen — and more than 100 injured.
A security official told AFP around 1,000 people had been arrested since the protests began.
Human Rights Watch said eight demonstrators and a policeman had been killed in protests in Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and other cities.
Activists have circulated SMS messages and posted appeals on Facebook for fresh demonstrations “to demand the right to live with freedom and dignity.”
Obama, in his first on-camera reaction to the demonstrations, said “violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt” and that it was “absolutely critical” for Mubarak to move towards political reform.
Egypt is one of the United States’ closest allies in the region, but analysts say Washington is growing increasingly concerned that its refusal to implement more political reforms could lead to further unrest and instability.
Among protesters’ demands are the departure of the interior minister, whose security forces have been accused of heavy-handedness, and an end to a decades-old state of emergency and a rise in minimum wages.
Political discontent has been rumbling more loudly in Egypt since parliamentary elections in November, which were widely seen as rigged to allow candidates from Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party to record a landslide victory.
This video is from BBC, released Friday, Jan. 28, 2011.
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