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Chaos, Violence Intensifies at Central Cairo Square

  • Feb. 3: Anti-government protestors throw stones during clashes in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt's prime minister apologized for an attack by government supporters on protesters in a surprising show of contrition Thursday, and the government offered more concessions to try to calm the wave of demonstrations demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. (AP)

  • Feb. 3: Pro-Mubarak demonstrators, bottom, clash with anti-government demonstrators, top right, as a palm tree burns from a firebomb, in Tahrir Square, Cairo.AP

Protesters and regime supporters fought in a second day of rock-throwing battles at a central Cairo square while new lawlessness spread around the city. New looting and arson erupted, and gangs of thugs supporting President Hosni Mubarak attacked reporters, foreigners and rights workers while the army rounded up foreign journalists.

As bruised and bandaged protesters danced in victory after forcing back Mubarak loyalists attacking Tahrir Square, the government increasingly spread an image that foreigners were fueling the turmoil and supporting the unprecedented wave of demonstrations demanding the ouster of Mubarak, this country's unquestioned ruler for nearly three decades.

"When there are demonstrations of this size, there will be foreigners who come and take advantage and they have an agenda to raise the energy of the protesters," Vice President Omar Suleiman said in an interview on state TV.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned "in the strongest terms" the pro-government mobs that beat, threatened and intimidated reporters in Cairo.

Attacks on peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, foreigners and diplomats were "unacceptable under any circumstances," she said.

"It is especially in times of crisis that governments must demonstrate their adherence to these universal values," she said, pointing the finger at the regime of Egypt's 82-year-old autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, without explicitly blaming his government for the violence.

"There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the army, to protect those threatened and to hold accountable those responsible for these attacks," Clinton said.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley condemned what he called "a concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo."

Pro-government mobs beat foreign journalists with sticks outside downtown Tahrir Square, smashing equipment. Dozens of journalists, including ones from The Washington Post and The New York Times, were reported detained by security forces. One Greek print journalist was stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver, and a photographer was punched in the face. The Arabic news network Al-Arabiya pleaded for the army to protect its offices and journalists, and Al-Jazeera said two of its correspondents were attacked.

Human rights activists were also targeted. Military police stormed the offices of an Egyptian rights groups as activists were meeting and arrested at least 30, including two from the London-based Amnesty International, Amnesty spokesman Tom Mackey said. New York-based Human Rights Watch said one of its activists was also among those arrested.

"We call for the immediate and safe release of our colleagues and others with them who should be able to monitor the human rights situation in Egypt at this crucial time without fear of harassment or detention," said Amnesty's secretary-general, Salil Shetty.

President Hosni Mubarak said in an interview Thursday with ABC News that he wants to leave office now, but cannot for fear the country will sink deeper into chaos.

ABC's Christiane Amanpour said Mubarak told her that he is troubled by deadly violence between anti- and pro-government groups in Cairo's Tahrir Square and that the government is not responsible for it. In the interview at the presidential palace, Mubarak blamed the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood for the violence.

Lawlessness that had largely eased since the weekend flared anew. A fire raged in a major supermarket outside Sheikh Zayed, a suburb of the capital, and looters were ransacking the building. A residential building neighboring a 5-star hotel on the Nile River corniche was also ablaze, blocks away from Tahrir. Other fires erupted in the Cairo district of Shubra, north of the center, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The military and the security forces appeared to be doing little to stop either the looting or the clashes around Tahrir. In the interview, Suleiman said without elaborating that the police had "lost some of its capabilities" and that the army -- the main force on the streets of the capital -- was struggling to fill the void.

The military is "shouldering duties that are new to it, enforcing the curfre and protecting citizens from thuggery and outlaws," he said. "It's a huge burden on the armed forces to carry out police role that it didn't have before."

Under an onslaught of international condemnation for Wednesday's assault on protesters by pro-Mubarak rioters, the government offered a series of gestures trying to calm the fury. Protesters accuse the regime of organizing a force of paid thugs and police in civilian clothes to attack them Wednesday afternoon, sparking the violence that raged until Thursday night.

The prime minister apologized for Wednesday's assault and acknowledged it may have been organized, though he said he didn't know by whom. Suleiman promised that the 82-year-old Mubarak's son Gamal would not run to succeed his father in presidential elections in September and offered to hold negotiations on the country's future even with the regime's biggest domestic enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the gestures -- which would have been stunning only a month ago -- appeared likely to be drowned out by the chaos around Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, which over the past 10 days tens of thousands have demanded Mubarak's immediate ouster.

"Hosni Mubarak's every breath is a lie," said Assem Moussa, a 40-year-old businessman among the protesters. "All the promises and the concessions are part of the lies. He is trying to deceive the people." Moussa pulled a white cloth out of his pocket, saying, "This is my funeral shroud. If I die here, I will die for our freedom."

The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force the president out by Friday. In a speech Tuesday night, Mubarak refused to step down, saying he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term -- a halfway concession rejected by the protesters.

At least eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the fighting in and around Tahrir.

In a sign of the economic impact of the turmoil, Suleiman said 1 million foreign tourists fled over the past nine days, costing $1 billion in lost revenues from one of Egypt's most important industries.

Thursday's fighting centered on and under a highway overpass about 500 yards north of the square's center that pro-government attackers had used as a high ground to rain down stones and firebombs. Anti-Mubarak protesters surged from the square in the afternoon in volleys of stones, bottles and metal rebar, chasing their foes around the fly-over.

At one point, a police truck barreled wildly through the crowds under the bridge, mowing down several people in its path, according to footage aired on Al-Jazeera. Heavy barrages of gunfire were heard from time to time, and at least one wounded person was carried away.

After night fell, the fighting died down with protesters largely in control of the bridge and their hold on the square itself unchallenged. Nearly 10,000 remained in the square, some dancing and singing in victory as others -- battered and bandaged -- lay down exhausted to drink tea or sleep in the center of the rubble-strewn roundabout.

"Thank God, we managed to protect the whole area," said Abdul-Rahman, a taxi driver who was among thousands who hunkered in the square through Wednesday night against the thousands besieging the entrances. "We prevented the pro-Mubarak people from storming the streets leading to the square." He refused to give his full name.

The fighting again underlined the unclear position of the Egyptian military. During the battles Wednesday and into the following night, they stood by without interfering. They only moved into action Thursday morning, after heavy barrages of automatic gunfire over the course of two hours before dawn killed five protesters in a serious escalation.

Four tanks cleared the highway overpass and several hundred soldiers on the streets below lined up between the two sides, pushing the pro-government fighters back and blocking the main battle lines in front of the famed Egyptian Museum and at other entrances to the square. For several hours after, more protesters streamed into the square to support those who had fought through the night.

But when clashes resumed in the afternoon, soldiers again disappeared from the streets, moving inside their tanks and armored vehicles without intervening.

During Thursday's fighting, bands of Mubarak supporters moved through side streets around Tahrir, trading volleys of stone-throwing with protesters and attacking cars to stop supplies from reaching the protest camp. One band stopped a car, ripped open the trunk and found boxes of juice, water and food, which they took before forcing the driver to flee.

The Mubarak backers seethed with anger at a protest movement that state TV and media have depicted as paralyzing businesses and livelihoods. "You in Tahrir are the reason we can't live a normal life," one screamed as he threw stones.

Every once in a while in the fighting, protesters would wrestle a Mubarak supporter to the ground, search him for an ID, then raise the card in the air to prove he was a police officer or ruling party member.

The anti-Mubarak youths posted sentries on the roofs and balconies of buildings around the square to raise the alert of any approaching attackers and rain stones on them. Other lookouts in the streets banged metal poles against pedestrian barriers alarm when they sighted incoming Mubarak backers.

One sentry waved his arms in the air like an airport runway traffic controller, directing defenders carrying piles of stones as ammunition to a side street to fend off an assault. But then another sentry waved a hand across his chest horizontally in a new signal. The crowd understood: false alarm, and they melted back into the square.

Many of those leading the defense had cotton padding and grubby bandages dangling from their faces, arms and legs. Many had chunks of rock stuck to their hair and clumps of dust in their beards. A large number had the trimmed beards of Muslim conservatives, a sign of how the Muslim Brotherhood a major role in the fight.

Mubarak said he would not run for re-election in September. His top ally the United States has pressed him to quickly transition to a democratic government but has said his earlier gestures, including forming a new government, were insufficient.

On Thursday, authorities offered new concessions, trying to defuse the chaos. Prosecutors announced an assets freeze and travel ban against the former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, whose police forces led a fierce crackdown against the protests when they initially broke out on Jan. 25. Similar measures were announced against the former housing and tourism ministers, who were among the unpopular millionaire businessmen who dominated the ousted government.

Suleiman told journalists he had invited the Muslim Brotherhood to enter negotiations with the government. He said the Brotherhood remains "hesitant" but underlined that it was a "valuable opportunity" for the fundamentalist movement.

The Brotherhood, which calls for an Islamic state in Egypt, is the top political opponent of Mubarak's regime, which has always rejected any contact with the group and has launched heavy campaigns of arrests against it over past year. The Brotherhood is among the many disparate anti-Mubarak groups organizing the protests, though secular activists have so far dominated the movement. All have rejected any dialogue with the government before Mubarak steps down.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq acknowledged that the attack "seemed to have been organized" and said elements had infiltrated what began as a demonstration against the protesters to turn it violent. But he said he did not know who, promising an investigation into who was behind it.

"I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it's neither logical nor rational," Shafiq told state TV. "Everything that happened yesterday will be investigated so everyone knows who was behind it."

Shafiq, a former air force general appointed by Mubarak over the weekend, defended Mubarak's announcement Tuesday that he would serve out the rest of his term. "Would it be dignified for a nation for its president to leave immediately?" Shafiq said. "There are ethics that must be observed."