Battle for Cairo leaves hundreds bloodied

CAIRO—The battle for the heart of Cairo has left a bloodied city seething with the hatred of hand-to-hand civil war.

The prize is Tahrir Square: Protesters opposed to President Hosni Mubarak hold it, those who support him want to chase them out.

Supporters of Mubarak opened fire early Thursday on protesters camped out in the square, wounding at least seven, witnesses said.

Al Arabiya television quoted a doctor at the scene as saying one protester was killed when a barrage of gunfire rang out across the square at around 4 a.m. local time. Another witness said as many as 15 people were wounded.

That followed massive street fights on Wednesday that had thousands of Egyptians squaring off on several fronts. They smashed interlocking pavement stones to use as weapons, battered each other with sticks and steel pipes, and rode horses, donkeys and camels into battle.

Five people were killed in the fighting.

The violent clashes continued late into the night, pushing the badly outnumbered military — which had spent the day on the sidelines after calling for an end to the protests — to unleash volleys of tracer fire over the heads of protesters near the famous Egyptian Museum.

Gasoline bombs lit the night and explosions rocked the square. Some journalists trying to cover the clashes were assaulted, including a CBC cameraman.

The chaos came hours after Mubarak said he would step down in September, after 30 years of autocratic rule. He promised a peaceful transition of power in the meantime.

Yet there were no police on the streets Wednesday, and the military watched and did nothing.

Mubarak turned his city over to the mob.

“Yesterday he wanted us to give him a chance, to let him stay in power for eight more months. Today he sends his thugs to kill us. What will he do tomorrow?” said Zachy Mohammed, 35, a protester who, like the thousands who occupy Tahrir Square, wants the president to resign immediately.

France, Germany, Britain and the United States all urged Mubarak to speed up his departure. But the 82-year-old president is digging in his heels.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton phoned Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s newly appointed vice-president, and urged the government to hold “fully accountable” those responsible for the day’s violence, said Philip Crowley, the State Department spokesman.

Clinton also told Suleiman that the government must immediately start its promised overhaul.

In a speech Tuesday, President Barack Obama said a transition of power must begin immediately.

“‘Now’ means yesterday,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

On Taalat Harb St., one of the entrances to Tahrir Square, the battle was a street version of trench warfare. Hundreds on both sides spent hours bombarding each other with stones. One minute Mubarak supporters would gain a few metres; the next, those defending Tahrir Square would regroup, launch a frenzied assault and gain them back.

An endless parade of wounded were carried off the battlefield bleeding from slashed heads, broken teeth or blinded eyes. All of it happened under the eyes of three soldiers standing on a tank, parked behind the lines of the fighters defending the square.

Tahrir defenders pressed on. They were on the verge of pushing their opponents past the next corner when Molotov cocktails rained down, burst into flames and sent them stampeding in retreat.

Victory seemed in sight for Mubarak supporters. They charged down the street in a wild roar, brandishing sticks, steel bars and rocks. They were 20 metres from the square’s entrance when a soldier on the tank decided to take sides. He opened fire.

Seven shots from his AK-47 cracked over the heads of the Mubarak supporters, echoing loudly off the buildings and sending the fighters running back for their lives.

The Tahrir defenders went wild. They rushed back from the square and swarmed the tank, shouting, “The army and the people are one.” A few crawled up and hugged the soldier, who was a ranking officer.

Then the soldier broke down. He cried uncontrollably for several minutes. His orders were to remain neutral. He took a stand, and the strain broke him.

Authorities say 1,500 were injured Wednesday. At least 140 people have been killed during nine days of a popular uprising to overthrow Mubarak. The protests in the most populous Arab state — a diplomatic heavyweight in the Middle East — threaten to spread and rock autocratic governments throughout the region.

The day began with the first major rally in support of the president during the uprising. Many appeared poorer than the crowds that have filled Tahrir Square. The jammed the Corniche, the avenue that hugs the Nile River, with portraits of Mubarak and banners that read, “We love you.”

“With our lives, with our blood, we will defend you,” they chanted.

Many at the pro-Mubarak rally had supported the Tahrir Square protesters until the president’s announcement Tuesday, when he also said he would amend the constitution to limit the number of terms a president can serve.

“We need stability for the next six months,” said Ashraf Tawatkol, a textile factory owner who had supported the anti-Mubarak camp. “We lived with Mubarak for 30 years. Can we not live with him for another six months for the benefit of all the people?”

Many accused the Tahrir protesters of being paid by the U.S., Israel and Iran. Much of their scorn was directed at Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and former head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency. He recently returned to Cairo and is at the forefront of uniting Egypt’s opposition parties.

“Who is ElBaradei?” asked Ahmad Sayeed, 25. “He’s doesn’t live in Egypt. He doesn’t even speak Arabic.”

“It’s been 30 years of peace and nine sleepless nights,” said Nadia Mohammed Ali, 46, describing what she considered the contrasts between Mubarak’s regime and the uprising against him. “He’s the father of our nation — we can’t attack the father.”

Some Tahrir defenders tried to convince comrades to stop answering stones with stones. One man looked to the sky and shouted, “God, please help us.” Some fell to their knees in the middle of the bedlam and prayed.

“Mubarak made the people fight each other,” one man screamed.

Anti-Mubarak protesters are convinced the men who attacked them were members of the president’s National Democratic Party, police officers in civilian clothing, and prisoners released from jails. They are also convinced the men were paid to attack them. Egypt’s interior ministry has denied the accusations.

Several Western and local journalists covering the unrest were targeted.

Reporter Jean-François Lépine of the CBC’s French-language RDI network said he and cameraman Sylvain Castonguay were surrounded by a mob that began hitting them, until they were rescued by the Egyptian army.

“Without them, we probably would have been beaten to death,” he told The Associated Press.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper was punched repeatedly by pro-Mubarak protesters in the square, and a journalist for Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television suffered a concussion.

Mubarak’s strategy, his opponents insist, is to demonstrate that without him there is nothing but chaos.

“This is all orchestrated by him,” charged Hisham Abdel Raffa, a medical doctor. “How many more will die if he stays in power another eight months?”

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