Monday, February 6, 2012

Egypt clashes rage into fourth day

Protesters and police engaged in sporadic clashes on Sunday at security headquarters in Cairo as violence raged into a fourth day and the interior minister leapt to the defence of his reviled forces.

The fighting was sparked by the perceived failure of Egypt's military rulers and police to prevent football-linked violence following a match in the northern city of Port Said on Wednesday that left 74 people dead.

Clashes have been fuelled by police action, including the use of tear gas and birdshot, against protesters, with the health ministry reporting at least 12 people killed in Cairo and Suez in the backlash since Thursday.

Hundreds of riot police on Sunday blocked roads leading to the interior ministry headquarters in the centre of the capital, facing down youths throwing rocks and petrol bombs.

Police erected several concrete block walls on the roads leading to the ministry, which has become the nerve centre of the skirmishes, while entrenching themselves behind coils of barbed wire.

"There is an insistance (by protesters) on storming the interior ministry and implementing a plot," said Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, whose predecessor was sacked in a cabinet shuffle in November following similar clashes.

Ibrahim said police did not want to harm any "revolutionaries" among the protesters, but were prepared to confront others "who want to ruin the country."

Police earlier moved on protester positions in the rock-strewn streets, firing birdshot and detained medics at a field hospital but later released them, a doctor, Mustafa Nabil, told AFP.

The protesters denied they intended to storm the ministry, several hundred metres (yards) from Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the uprising that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak a year ago but left the military in charge.

"My heart burned at what happened in Port Said, and we all know that the police are responsible," said protester Ahmed Farah.

"We don't want to storm the ministry. We are protesting here because this is the police headquarters."

The Port Said violence has been blamed by protesters and several commentators on ex-members of the Mubarak regime, including his sons Alaa and Gamal who are detained in Torah jail outside Cairo on corruption charges.

The interior ministry said on Sunday that it was going to split the officials, who include former ministers and security chiefs, and place them in five different prisons "in response to demands by protesters."

A medical wing was also being set up in Torah to eventually receive Mubarak, who is now held in a military hospital and facing trial on charges of involvement in the killing of protesters during last year's revolt.

The latest clashes come amid a spike in tensions between activists and the ruling military, which blames the unrest on a foreign plot.

Judicial sources told AFP that 44 people including 19 Americans and other foreigners working for aid organisations have been referred to Cairo's criminal court over alleged illegal funding of their groups.

The suspects 44 are accused of "setting up branches of international organisations in Egypt without a licence from the Egyptian government" and of "receiving illegal foreign funding."

The ruling military receives more than one billion dollars in US aid annually, but it has blamed foreigners for directing activists against it.

On Friday, marchers nationwide demanded the generals cede power immediately, amid charges the military was deliberately sowing chaos to justify its status atop the political ladder.

Many of the dead in Port Said were thought to have been Ultras, supporters of Cairo's main football club Al-Ahly, set upon by partisans of the local Al-Masry side.

The Ultras played a prominent role in last year's uprising, and commentators have fed speculation pro-Mubarak forces were behind the massacre, or at least complicit in it.

Ibrahim denied that former interior minister Habib al-Adly, on trial with Mubarak for the killings of protesters, still had influence.

"Adly is in jail now and has no followers in the ministry," he said.

The military, headed by Mubarak's defence minister of two decades Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has pledged to hand over full powers to civilian rule when a president is elected by the end of June.

Its opponents believe the military will hold on to power.

The military's increasingly unpopular rule has been challenged by several bloody protests, in which dozens of people were killed between October and December, amid an increase in lawlessness and an economic downturn.

Also Sunday, saboteurs blew up a pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula that supplies Israel with gas, the 12th such attack in a year.

The attack came the day after the death in prison of an Islamist leader suspected of leading a militant group responsible for previous attacks on the pipeline and on police stations across Sinai.

Interior ministry officials said Mohammed Eid al-Taihi died from a "drop in blood circulation" and forensic doctors detected no signs of torture.

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