CAIRO – Heavy automatic weapons fire pounded the anti-government protest camp in Cairo’s Tahrir Square before dawn today in a dramatic escalation of what appeared to be a well-orchestrated series of assaults on the demonstrators. At least three protesters were killed by gunfire, according to one of the activists.
The crowds seeking an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly three decades in power were still reeling from attacks hours earlier in which Mubarak supporters charged into the square on horses and camels, lashing people with whips, while others rained firebombs and rocks from rooftops.
The protesters accused Mubarak’s regime of unleashing a force of paid thugs and plainclothes police to crush their unprecedented 9-day-old movement, a day after the 82-year-old president refused to step down. They showed off police ID badges they said were wrested from their attackers. Some government workers said their employers ordered them into the streets.
The violence intensified overnight, as sustained bursts of automatic gunfire and powerful single shots rained into the square starting at around 4 a.m. and continuing for more than two hours.
Protest organizer Mustafa el-Naggar said he saw the bodies of three dead protesters being carried toward an ambulance. He said the gunfire came from at least three locations in the distance and that the Egyptian military, which has ringed the square with tank squads for days to try to keep some order, did not intervene.
Footage from AP Television News showed one tank spreading a thick smoke screen along a highway overpass just to the north of the square in an apparent attempt to deprive attackers of a high vantage point. The two sides seemed to be battling for control of the overpass, which leads to a main bridge over the Nile.
At daybreak, the two sides were still battling with rocks and flaming bottles of gasoline.
The fighting began more than 12 hours earlier, turning the celebratory atmosphere in the square over the previous day into one of terror and sending a stream of wounded to makeshift clinics in mosques and alleyways on the anti-government side. Three people died in the violence on Wednesday and 600 were injured.
Mustafa el-Fiqqi, a senior official from the ruling National Democratic Party, said that businessmen connected to the ruling party were responsible for what happened.
The notion that the state may have coordinated violence against protesters, who had kept a peaceful vigil in Tahrir Square for five days, prompted a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration.
“If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief appointed vice president last week, said that the government couldn’t begin talks with the opposition until normal daily life returned.
The opposition said Wednesday’s violence showed that any such discussions were pointless until Mubarak was gone.
“By doing this, Mubarak has cut off all channels of connections with the opposition, and we will not be carrying out any talks before Mubarak steps down,” said Ayman Nour, a university professor who is a leader of the movement for greater democracy in Egypt.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood called on protesters to keep up the pressure on Mubarak.