Mubarak backers, protesters clash in Egypt

CAIRO, Egypt — Thousands of supporters and opponents of President Hosni Mubarak battled in Cairo’s main square Wednesday, raining stones, bottles and firebombs on each other in scenes of uncontrolled violence as soldiers stood by without intervening

Pro-government demonstrators

Pro-government demonstrators

CAIRO, Egypt — Thousands of supporters and opponents of President Hosni Mubarak battled in Cairo’s main square Wednesday, raining stones, bottles and firebombs on each other in scenes of uncontrolled violence as soldiers stood by without intervening.

Government backers galloped in on horses and camels, only to be dragged to the ground and beaten bloody.

At the one of the fighting’s front lines, next to the famed Egyptian Museum at the edge of Tahrir Square, pro-government rioters blanketed the rooftops of nearby buildings and dumped bricks and firebombs onto the crowd below — in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum grounds.

At each of the six entrances to the sprawling plaza, the two sides pummelled each other with hurled chunks of concrete and bottles. Some among the more than 3,000 government supporters waved machetes as their anti-Mubarak rivals filled the air with a ringing battlefield din by banging metal fences with sticks.

Within the square, dozens of men and women from the anti-Mubarak camp pried up the sidewalk with bars, broke it into pieces and ferried the piles of ammunition in canvas sheets to their colleages at the front.

The health minister announced one dead — a person in civilian clothes who may have been policeman, who fell off a nearby bridge — and nearly 600 injured. Bloodied young men staggered or were carried into makeshift clinics set up in mosques and alleyways by the anti-government side.

Protesters pleaded for protection from soldiers stationed at the square, who refused. Soldiers did nothing to stop the violence beyond firing an occasional shot in the air and no uniformed police were in sight.

Some protesters wept and prayed in the square where around 10,000 had massed Wednesday morning and where only a day before they had held a joyous, peaceful rally of a quarter-million, the largest yet in more than a week of demonstrations demanding Mubarak leave power.

Protesters contended there were plainclothed police among their attackers, showing police ID badges they said were wrested off them. Others, they said, were paid by the regime to assault them — a tactic that security forces have used in the past.

“After our revolution, they want to send people here to ruin it for us,” said Ahmed Abdullah, a 47-year-old lawyer in the square. “Why do they want us to be at each other’s throats, with the whole world watching us.”

Another man shrieked through a loudspeaker, “Hosni has opened the door for these thugs to attack us.”

In the evening, state TV ran an order — without saying from whom — for “all demonstrators to evacuate Tahrir Square” immediately. From the other side, senior anti-Mubarak figure Mohamed ElBaradei issued a statement demanding the military “intervene decisively to stop this massacre.”

The clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt’s 9-day-old upheaval: the first significant violence between supporters of the two camps. Clashes began, first in the port city of Alexandria, just hours after Mubarak — the country’s authoritarian ruler for nearly 30 years — went on national television Tuesday night and rejected protesters’ demands he step down immediately. He defiantly insisted he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term.

That speech marked an abrupt shift in the deteriorating crisis. A military spokesman appeared on state TV Wednesday and asked the protesters to disperse so life in Egypt could get back to normal. That was a major turn in the attitude of the army, which for the past few days allowed protests to swell.

Also, the regime for the first time Wednesday began to rally its supporters in significant numbers to demand an end to the unprecedented protest movement.

Some 20,000 pro-government demonstrators held an angry but mostly peaceful rally across the Nile River from Tahrir, saying Mubarak’s concessions were enough and demanding protests end now that he has promised not to run for re-election in September, named a new government and appointed a vice-president for the first time.

Their gathering was shot through with bitterness at the jeers hurled against the 82-year-old Mubarak over the past nine days.

“I feel humiliated,” said Mohammed Hussein, a 31-year-old factory worker. “He is the symbol of our country. When he is insulted, I am insulted.”

Having the rival sides on the streets is particularly worrying because there do not appear to be anywhere near enough police or military to control resurgent violence.

The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force him out by Friday, and the scenes of violence may have aimed to intimidate people from joining.

International concern was also mounting. A day after President Barack Obama pressed Mubarak to loosen his grip on power immediately, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. “deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt” and called for restraint.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Egyptian authorities must accelerate their political reforms and said that “if it turns out that the regime in any way has been sponsoring or tolerating this violence, that would be completely and utterly unacceptable.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meeting Cameron in London, also condemned the violence as “unacceptable.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the assault on the protesters “raises the urgent question whether the political leaders of Egypt understand the need for rapid democratic reform.”

The violence began after nearly 10,000 anti-government protesters massed again in Tahrir on Wednesday morning, rejecting Mubarak’s speech as too little too late and renewing their demands he leave immediately.

The rally was peaceful, but Mubarak supporters began to gather at the edges of the square, and protesters formed a human chain to keep them out. In the early afternoon, around 3,000 pro-government demonstrators broke through and surged among the protesters, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.

They tore down banners denouncing the president, fistfights broke out, and protesters grabbed Mubarak posters from the hands of the supporters and ripped them to pieces.

From there, it escalated into outright street battles as hundreds poured in to join each side. They tore up chunks of pavement and grabbed ammunition from a nearby construction site, hurling stones, metal rods, concrete and sticks at each other and chasing each other.

At one point, a small contingent of pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels rushed into the anti-Mubarak crowds, trampling several and swinging whips and sticks. Protesters dragged some from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels appeared to be ones used by the many touts around Cairo who sell rides for tourists.

The main battle line next to the Egyptian Museum — the famed treasury of pharaonic antiquities and mummies — surged back and forth repeatedly for hours. Anti-Mubarak protesters held up sheets of corrugated metal ripped from the construction site as shields from the hail of stones.

Some tried to charge into the buildings where government supporters on the roofs were pelting them with stones, but they were stopped by plainclothes security forces at the entrances.

Protesters were seen running with their shirts or faces bloodied. Scores of wounded were carried to a makeshift clinic at a mosque near the square and on other side streets. Doctors in white coats rushed about with bags of cotton, mercurochrome and bandages. One man with blood coming out of his eye stumbled into a side-street clinic.

As night fell, some protesters went to get food, a sign they plan to dig in for a long siege.