Anti-Government Protesters Vow To Press On In Cairo

Clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators left dozens injured and prompted the army to begin dispersing protesters.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Television images from Egypt in the last day bring to mind the wars of some earlier age. Protestors opposed to President Hosni Mubarak were defending a square in Cairo.

MONTAGNE: They held their battle lines with makeshift metal shields, a little like ancient Roman soldiers. Supporters of the president threw firebombs over those shields. Some had ridden in on horses, swinging whips and swords.

INSKEEP: It's widely suspected that Egypt's government instigated this violence. But today, the prime minister of Egypt is apologizing and promising to investigate.

MONTAGNE: The battle is both physical and political between protestors who want their president to go, and the president who says he will leave on his own timetable.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has the latest from Cairo.

ERIC WESTERVELT: A day of running street battles with rocks and Molotov cocktails gave way to bursts of gunfire deep into the night. Witnesses say the fire came from pro-Mubarak factions on the edges of the square.

This morning, inside Tahrir Square, exhausted and battered protesters slept on the ground, many of them nursing bandaged and bloodied heads.

Hossam Sa'ad says despite the chaos and shootings, protesters are now even more determined.

Mr. HOSSAM SA'AD (Protestor): We won't give up. If they kill one, they kill two, they kill 100, 1,000, we will stay to the end, because we cannot continue living our life like this with Mubarak.

WESTERVELT: For nine days, protesters had been largely peaceful in calling on Hosni Mubarak to resign. On Tuesday, President Mubarak said he would not step down until his term ends in September. Protesters here say that pledge does not go far enough.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

WESTERVELT: During the day Wednesday, pro and anti-Mubarak factions attacked each other for hours with rocks, glass, bricks, metal rods and gasoline bombs. Protesters improvised. They made shields out of plastic bread trays and sheets of metal pilfered from construction sites.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

WESTERVELT: Anti-government demonstrators scrambled to get their injured to a makeshift hospital staffed by volunteer doctors.

How quickly the violence spiraled, and its intensity shook many protesters. The street battles once again focused attention on the Egyptian military's stance. Previously, the army had been seen as largely supportive, saying the demonstrators had legitimate grievances. But the army did little to halt the violence or separate the factions, besides firing a few warning shots in the air.

Anti-Mubarak protestor Maghde Ilnahas implored soldiers to intervene. They refused.

Ms. MAGHDE ILNAHAS (Protestor): We need the army. We need the army to protect us. Please, please, we need help. All of us, we are Egyptian. We don't want to fight. We need somebody to be between us, like before. We need the army now. Where is the army?

WESTERVELT: One of the opposition leaders, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, called on the military to, quote, "intervene decisively and stop this massacre."

Demonstrators accused the Mubarak regime of paying its supporters and plainclothes security forces to attack them.

There were many signs the attacks Wednesday were coordinated. Many pro-Mubarak people had freshly printed signs and seemed well-equipped and well-organized.

In London, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denounced the violence. Standing by his side, British Prime Minister David Cameron called for President Mubarak to accelerate political reforms, and he warned him not to back violence against peaceful protesters.

Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON (Great Britain): We have been watching the events in Cairo with great concern and completely condemn the violence that is taking place. And if it turns out that the regime, in any way, has been sponsoring or tolerating this violence, that would be completely and utterly unacceptable.

WESTERVELT: But Egyptian officials were defiant. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki called Prime Minister Cameron's comments an unacceptable intervention in Egypt's internal affairs.

In Washington, the White House Wednesday called the violence deplorable, and urged Mubarak to go further and faster on political reform. Egypt's Foreign Ministry rejected that, as well, saying such calls aimed to incite the internal situation in Egypt.

Anti-government demonstrators this morning continued to pour into the square, and some pro-Mubarak factions were again seen forming on the square's outskirts. Witnesses say the army, in some places, is trying to separate the two sides.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Cairo.

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