Egypt protesters stick to demands as Cairo battle rages
CAIRO – Thousands of protesters demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster stood their ground on Thursday against stone-throwing loyalists after Egypt’s revolt turned into a deadly battle for a central Cairo square.
On the 10th day of a popular uprising, the opposition National Coalition for Change rejected any talks with Mubarak’s regime before the veteran leader goes, spokesman Mohammed Abul Ghar told AFP.
State television said earlier that Vice President Omar Suleiman had opened a dialogue with “political parties and national forces,” although he himself has ruled out talks with the opposition until all protesters go home.
The health ministry, cited on the television, said five people were killed and 836 injured since Wednesday in running clashes for control of Tahrir Square, the focal point of the anti-Mubarak protests.
Around 50 army troops finally moved in to create a buffer zone early on Thursday between the warring protesters, but pro-regime militants later broke through the lines to hurl stones, correspondents at the scene said.
Tens of thousands of protesters have said they will go ahead with plans for a massive demonstration on Friday, their designated “departure day” for Mubarak.
As EU nations urged an immediate political transition to end the bloodshed and urged Cairo to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said the clashes would be investigated.
Dr Mohammed Ismail, at a makeshift clinic in another square next to Tahrir, said gunmen killed at least four of the anti-Mubarak protesters, with the shots allegedly fired by plainclothes police loyal to the creaking regime.
The gunfire came after backers of Mubarak stormed the Tahrir Square stronghold of anti-regime protesters on Wednesday afternoon.
The two sides fought battles with stones and Molotov cocktails through the night and into Thursday morning, with many of the square’s paving slabs torn up and broken into fist-sized projectiles.
Washington, which has repeatedly called for restraint, condemned the violence against “peaceful protesters” while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the attacks on demonstrators were “unacceptable.”
US President Barack Obama has called for the transition from Mubarak’s three-decade-long rule to begin immediately after the veteran president announced late on Tuesday that he would not seek re-election in September.
But the Egyptian foreign ministry said such calls “sought to inflame the internal situation.”
Wounded 11-year-old Mohammed Ghozlan and his father Khaled were Thursday morning at a field clinic opposite the world-famous Egyptian Museum, having spent the night on the square.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry, you’re a hero,” Khaled tells his son, who has a gash on the side of his head requiring four stitches.
Protesters have erected corrugated iron and rubbish barricades on streets leading into the square, where thousands spent a chilly night, sleeping, chanting, throwing stones and nursing wounds.
Soldiers deployed around the square have retreated into their tanks and armoured personnel carriers, after a hail of rocks rained down on them for hours on Wednesday.
One in 10 people have some kind of visible injury, an AFP correspondent said, with volunteers distributing food and clothing to the exhausted protesters.
Citizens have built an improvised 10-foot (over two metre) high stone-throwing catapult out of planks and a crate.
With the casualty toll shooting up, the US State Department issued a stark travel warning for citizens in Egypt, urging those who want to leave to “immediately” head for the airport, adding that any delay was “not advisable.”
From early Wednesday afternoon until well into the night, regime supporters and opponents threw stones and battled with sticks and fists in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of protests that have sent shockwaves around the Arab world.
A hard core of tens of thousands of anti-regime protesters had remained at Tahrir Square through the night, angry at the 82-year-old’s refusal to step down immediately in line with the demands of opposition leaders.
Both sides continued throwing rocks and skirmishing into the night, with army and civilian ambulances taking the wounded away.
Anti-regime protesters stopped handing over pro-Mubarak militants to the army as they said they were just being released. Instead, they kept some 30 of those they captured at an improvised prison in a metro station.
The captives were badly beaten, an AFP correspondent reported.
Several foreign journalists have also became the target of violent attacks, a media watchdog and news organisations said, apparently on charges of fuelling the uprising with their coverage.
Correspondents, photographers and cameramen reporting on the fierce clashes in Tahrir Square said that the Mubarak supporters were hostile to the press.
As many as 300 people may have been killed in Egypt’s anti-government unrest which erupted on January 25, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Tuesday.
Security and medical sources in Egypt said on Monday at least 102 people had been killed in clashes between demonstrators and police before policemen were ordered to stand down last weekend.