CAIRO – Overnight clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in east Cairo left at least 38 protesters dead on Saturday, a doctor at the demonstrators' field hospital said. They followed a day of massive pro-military rallies backing a tough hand against Morsi's backers and the Muslim Brotherhood group from which he hails.
The violence close to the Morsi supporters' month-old sit-in near the Rabaah al-Adawiyah Mosque in east Cairo is one of the deadliest bouts of violence in Egypt's turmoil following the 2011 popular uprising. It also comes almost three weeks after more than 50 people, mostly demonstrators, died in a similar outbreak of violence outside a military installation near the same sit-in.
Doctor Yehia Mikkia said Saturday's casualties — mostly gunshot and birdshot wounds to the upper part of the body — have overwhelmed the hospital operating from the sit-in. He said the number of death is likely to be higher because other casualties were transported to different hospitals.
The state news agency MENA quoted an unnamed senior security official saying that the security forces had not used gunfire against the protesters, only tear gas. He said security forces tried to prevent fighting between residents of the area and the protesters, and that eight members of the security forces were wounded, including some by birdshot.
The bodies of over 12 men were shrouded in white clothes, lying in pools of blood, were laid on the floor of the field hospital in images broadcast by Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr TV. Mikkia said hundreds were wounded.
Health ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.
MENA said clashes continued into the morning, albeit at a lower intensity. It said Morsi supporters pelted security forces with rocks and firebombs, while security closed off the road with barbed wire and responded with tear gas.
The clashes started after police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of Morsi supporters who tried to extend the sit-in outside the Rabaah al-Adawiyah mosque into a major boulevard.
Morsi's Brotherhood and other Islamist groups had called for a rally in the area to counteract other protests called by the head of the armed forces Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi , who urged Egyptians to give him a mandate to stop "potential terrorism" by supporters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood
The military's supporters dwarfed those of the former president, and appeared to be the largest crowds yet on Egypt's streets during the country's two-and-a-half years of turmoil. They filled the streets of some cities that had previously seen next to no street demonstrations.
As crowds gathered, authorities announced that Morsi was formally placed under investigation on a host of allegations including murder and conspiracy with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Late Friday night, hundreds of Morsi supporters marched out of their main sit-in. The protesters set up tents on an adjoining boulevard, where they had intended to stay for at least three days, said Mahmoud Zaqzouq, a Brotherhood spokesman. Others marched out of the area toward an overpass. They were met with police tear gas. The police push was met by resistance from the protesters who lobbed rocks and stones at the forces.
Police spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif said earlier in the night that a group of pro-Morsi protesters tried to block a major overpass from the area, and were "dealt" with because the forces were trying to restore law and order.
But the clashes quickly turned bloody. At first, doctors said half a dozen were killed in the clashes, mostly by birdshots and some live ammunition. At the crack of dawn, the intensity of casualties increased and Mikkia said the field hospital was unable to cope with the influx.
A statement by the pro-Morsi sit-in, called the Anti-Coup Coalition, said el-Sissi's call was "inciting violence and hatred," and " is used as a cover for such heinous crimes of killings."
The rival demonstrations in Cairo were mostly peaceful into the evening, but clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi left seven killed in the coastal city of Alexandria.
Rallies have often turned violent, with more than 180 people killed this month. The Morsi supporters and opponents blame each other for the bloodshed, and people in both camps have been seen carrying weapons.
The unrest, as well as claims that Islamist groups are stockpiling weapons and escalating attacks against troops in the Sinai, were used by the country's new military-backed rulers as a basis for demanding popular support.