Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Egypt on edge as demonstrations turn violent

CAIRO (Reuters) – Police fought with thousands of Egyptians who defied a government ban on Wednesday to protest against President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-old rule, firing rubber bullets and tear gas and dragging away demonstrators.

In central Cairo, demonstrators burned tires and hurled stones at police. In Suez, protesters torched a government building as protests intensified in other parts of the country.

Two people died in Cairo as protests unfolded but security officials contradicted each other on the circumstances. One told reporters a protester and a policeman were killed in clashes. But another official later said they died in a traffic accident.

The scenes, rare in a tightly run nation with a fragmented opposition movement, follow the overthrow two weeks ago of another long-serving Arab strongman, Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in a popular revolt.

Emboldened by the Tunisian uprising and frustrated by corruption, poverty and repression, protesters in Egypt have demanded that the 82-year-old Mubarak step down.

"The people want the regime to fall," they chanted. On Tuesday, the first day of rallies known as the "Day of Wrath" among activists, three protesters and a policeman were killed.

Security forces have arrested about 500 demonstrators over the two days, an Interior Ministry source said. Witnesses said officers, some in civilian clothes, hauled away people and bundled them into unmarked vans. They beat some with batons.

The coordinated protests were unlike anything witnessed in Egypt -- one of the United States' closest Middle East allies -- since Mubarak, a former air force commander, came to power in 1981 after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists.

Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid canceled a trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos. He gave no reason.

Police fired shots into the air near the central Cairo court complex, witnesses said. In another area, they drove riot trucks into a crowd of about 3,000 people to force them to disperse.

One anonymous protester in Cairo told Reuters: "The main tactic now is we turn up suddenly and quickly without a warning or an announcement. That way we gain ground."

Prominent reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei, who lives in Vienna, has decided to return to Egypt on Thursday, his brother said. Baradei, formerly head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog authority, is a vocal advocate of political change. But the exact purpose of his trip was not clear.


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