Chaos in Cairo as Mubarak backers, opponents clash

CAIRO (AP) — 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 front line, next to the famed Egyptian Museum at the edge of Tahrir Square, pro-government rioters blanketed the rooftops of nearby buildings, dumping bricks and firebombs onto the crowd below — in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum grounds.

On the street below, the two sides crouched behind abandoned trucks and hurled chunks of concrete and bottles at each other, and some government supporters waved machetes.

Bloodied anti-government protesters were taken to makeshift clinics in mosques and alleyways nearby, and some 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.

“Hosni has opened the door for these thugs to attack us,” one man with a loudspeaker shouted to the crowds during the fighting.

The clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt’s upheaval — the first significant violence between supporters of the two camps in more than a week of anti-government protests. Clashes began, first in the port city of Alexandria, just hours after Mubarak 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 to their largest yet on Tuesday when a quarter-million peacefully packed into Tahrir Square.

Also, the regime for the first time Wednesday began to rally supporters in significant numbers to demand an end to the unprecedented protest movement calling for Mubarak’s removal.

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.

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.

International concern was also mounting. The White House deplored the violence and called for restraint.

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.

In the early afternoon, around 3,000 Mubarak supporters broke through a human chain of protesters trying to defend the thousands gathered in Tahrir, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. They tore down banners denouncing the president, fistfights broke out as 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 from grabbed ammunition from a nearby construction site, hurling stones, chunks of concrete and sticks at each, chasing each other.

Protesters were seen running with their shirts or faces bloodied. Men and women in the crowd were weeping. 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.

The army troops who have been guarding the square for days had been keeping the two sides apart earlier in the day, but when the clashes erupted they did not intervene. Most took shelter behind or inside the armored vehicles and tanks stationed at the entrances to the square.

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