Egypt Military Denies Shooting Protesters

CAIRO -- A military official on Wednesday blamed a group of Christian protesters for starting violent clashes with armed troops, saying some attacked soldiers with swords and firebombs during a Christian rally earlier this week that turned into Egypt's worst violence since Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

Gen. Adel Emara denied the troops opened fire with live ammunition on the protesters or intentionally ran over them with armored vehicles. The violence late Sunday left at least 26 people dead, most of whom where Christians and many of whom were crushed by vehicles or died from gunfire, according to forensic reports. State media said at least three soldiers were also killed.

Emara spoke at a press conference Wednesday that was clearly aimed at defending Egypt's military rulers from heavy criticism they have come under for the violence at the protests. He gave a detailed account of the military's version of the events, using video footage of the events culled from state TV and independent stations. One of the images showed a protester hurling a heavy stone at soldiers inside an armored vehicle.

Witnesses and Christian protesters have denied the demonstrators started the fighting outside Egypt's state television building in Cairo, known as the Maspero building. At the press conference, Emara did not show other videos aired on TV stations or posted on YouTube -- one of which seems to show soldiers storming protesters who were peacefully holding speeches outside the building and another that shows a soldier firing with an unidentifiable weapon at protesters at close range from the back of a speeding amored vehicle that is weaving at the crowds.

The violence Sunday rippled through the Egyptian community, fueling rage beyond the Christian community. It was the worst violence against the protesters involving the military, and has put the ruling generals in a bad spot.

Emara said some Christian religious leaders and public figures incited protesters to violently take over the state TV building. He said a minority of the protesters were peaceful, but that a more violent, armed crowd joined the protest outside the TV building and began attacking a unit of about 300 soldiers, armed only with anti-riot gear.

"I want to bring your attention that the protesters outside Maspero had many strange things with them: swords, gas cylinders, molotov cocktails," he said. "This is not an indication that this is not a peaceful protest."

He said the protesters sparked the violence by setting army vehicles on fire and attacking forces inside with stones. He denied vehemently that soldiers barrelled their vehicles into the crowd intentionally, saying the drivers were in a state of panic and were trying to escape as they drove.

"I cannot deny that some people may have been hit. But it was not systematic," Emara said.

It is not "part of the dictionary" of the armed forces to drive over protesters, he said, adding that the troops guarding the television building did not have live ammunition.

His comments aimed clearly to draw sympathy for the troops, calling the protesters' attacks with stones and sticks "savage." Some of the video showed a bloody soldier being carried away on a stretcher. There was footage of protester bodies, some of which were mangled in the violence.

On Wednesday, the military quietly buried soldiers killed in the violence, the state news agency MENA reported. It did not give the number of soldiers buried, but the Arabic phrasing suggested it was more than two. An unidentified military official told MENA that the army hasn't released the exact number of troops killed in Sunday's clashes to preserve troop morale.

Another general at the press conference, Gen. Mahmoud Hegazi blamed some for trying to derail the democratic transition.

"The basic fact is there are enemies of the country who take advantage of the protests to infiltrate and realize destructive roles," he said. "We should all be aware."

Violence against Christians, the majority of whom belong to the orthodox Coptic Church, has mounted since the fall of Mubarak as state control has loosened, and as Islamist groups have started to operate freely.

But the violence on Sunday has fueled anger beyond the Christian community and is likely to widen criticism of the management of the ruling generals of the transition period.