Egypt police say they will besiege protest sites

CAIRO (AP) — Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi fortified their two Cairo sit-in sites as Egyptian security officials said their forces will move against the entrenched protest camps within 24 hours — perhaps as early as daybreak Monday.

At the main sit-in, vendors said they have sold hundreds of gas masks, goggles and gloves to protesters readying for police tear gas. Three waist-high barriers of concrete and wood have been built against armored vehicles.

The Arab world’s most populous country, where more than 250 people have been killed in clashes since Morsi was toppled July 3, braced for more violence as the four-day Muslim Eid celebrations wrapped up Sunday to end the holy month of Ramadan.

The security officials said they would set up cordons around the protest sites to bar anyone from entering, and one of the officials said that could begin as soon as sunrise.

The Interior Ministry has said it would take gradual measures, issuing warnings in recent weeks and saying it would use water cannons and tear gas to minimize casualties.

Interior Ministry officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss details of the security plans, said they are prepared for clashes that might be set off by the cordons. The officials said police are working with the Health Ministry to ensure ambulances are on hand for the wounded and that armored police vans are nearby to take away those arrested.

A special force within the Interior Ministry’s riot police that are trained for crowd dispersal will deal with protesters. In the past, however, Egypt’s riot police, many of whom lack the training to deal with unarmed civilians, resorted to using lethal force.

There was no immediate government confirmation of when forces would move in on the sit-ins.

Egypt’s military-backed interim leadership alleges that the sit-ins and protests have frightened residents, sparked deadly violence and disrupted traffic in the capital. Mass rallies two weeks ago called by the military leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, showed that a large segment of Egypt’s population backs the armed forces’ actions against the Morsi supporters.

The protesters blame the Interior Ministry and “thugs” for past violence, including a July 8 clash between demonstrators and security forces that left more than 80 dead.

Just before the holiday, the government said international efforts failed to reach a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Morsi’s supporters, who include members of his Muslim Brotherhood. The Cabinet said the decision to clear the main sit-in site outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque and a smaller one in nearby Giza near Cairo University was “irreversible.”

A last-ditch effort was launched over the weekend by the Sunni Muslim world’s pre-eminent religious institution, Al-Azhar, to push for a resolution.

The protesters, who demand Morsi’s reinstatement as Egypt’s first freely elected president, are expecting an imminent security push to clear them out and they have been fortifying their positions.

Ripped-up pieces of pavement comprise the first barriers that visitors must zigzag around to reach the Rabaah sit-in, where tens of thousands have been camped.

Along the way are piles of rocks to throw at police. There are also signs denouncing el-Sissi, who led the coup against Morsi, as well as marks on the ground that purport to show where protesters were shot to death in the recent clashes with security forces. One man bent down to kiss one of the spots on his way to the sit-in.

At the six entrances to the camp, male and female volunteers frisk visitors, inspect bags and check IDs.

Speakers on a stage Sunday led chants of “The dogs of el-Sissi killed my children!” and sang the national anthem.

There are fears that violence from trying to clear the two sites will spread to other areas of the capital and beyond, where thousands of Morsi supporters also hold near-daily marches.

The main protest camp is between middle-class residential buildings and ground floor businesses. Its focal point is the mosque and an adjacent stage where leaders of the Brotherhood charged with inciting violence openly talk to journalists.

Among them is former lawmaker Mohammed el-Beltagy, who vowed over the weekend to continue protesting at the sit-ins.

“We will happily sacrifice our souls, not for ourselves but to free the captured nation and to ensure freedom and dignity to our people and to the coming generations,” he said.

Security officials, speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to release the information, suspect that Brotherhood guards around the mosque in Rabaah al-Adawiya.

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