Gunfire Exchanged In Standoff At Cairo Mosque

A deadly standoff continues between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, who are holed up inside a Cairo mosque. Host Scott Simon gets the latest from reporter Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And this week, Egypt witnessed the bloodiest day in its modern history. More than 600 people were killed; most were in a security crackdown on supporters of the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi. And it isn't over. Dozens more people have died since, some in citizen-on-citizen violence.

A standoff continues at a central Cairo mosque, where pro-Morsi supporters seem to be holed up. Sharif Abdel Kouddous has been reporting from the scene today. He is a correspondent with Democracy Now, and he joins us from Cairo. Thanks for being with us.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What can you tell us about what's going on now?

KOUDDOUS: Well, it's a really chaotic scene. There are many police and army troops stationed in and around the mosque; and a large crowd that is also in and around the mosque, waiting for the people to come out. Hours ago, a few army soldiers tried to escort out some of the people who were besieged inside. They walked down the stairs but very quickly, the mob outside began to try and attack the people. One of them got hit very hard with a big plank of wood. Someone else threw a large metal box at them. The soldiers began to fire in the air, to back off the crowd, and there was such a vicious attack that they were forced to retreat back into the mosque.

So it's a very difficult situation that only got worse. At one point, soldiers and police began to fire with heavy machine gun fire at the minarets of the mosque. You could see the white puffs ricocheting off the minarets. It is apparently - seemed to be in retaliation to someone firing from up there, but there's no way of confirming that, although the fire from the soldiers and police did last for quite some time.

Afterwards, there was shooting from within the mosque. There was already police and soldiers inside. I wasn't actually in; I was just at the door. I couldn't see who was doing the firing, but it was a very chaotic scene. At one point, there was a very loud boom. People began running outside. And this is still happening, although the scene is somewhat calmer. There is sporadic gunfire that is happening as well.

SIMON: And Mr. Kouddous, you've seen people hit?

KOUDDOUS: Yes. I mean, this is a situation where there's a very angry mob on the streets, and it only takes one person to say something against someone else, or to throw a punch, and it very quickly descends into mob violence. I saw two journalists arrested. One - Alastair Beach, of the London Independent; and Matt Bradley, of the Wall Street Journal; both by just citizens. Alastair was taken into the washroom of the mosque. I went in to try and talk people out of it. We walked out with him but once we had him outside, people began attacking him. He got hit very hard with a stick on the head. He was handed over to the army soldiers who treated him quite well; put him inside an APC. And the same happened with Matt Bradley. They've both since been released.

This is, you know, I think the manifestation of a very deep political cleavage that has gotten much worse over the last six weeks, ever since Mohammed Morsi's ouster; but really began over a year ago, and has slipped into real chaotic violence. It's a zero-sum game by both sides, and the country is being left with zero.

SIMON: Mr. Kouddous, is anybody pulling back or are positions - seem to be hardening?

KOUDDOUS: Well, I don't think each side is pulling back. Both sides, as I said, are playing the zero-sum game. It's a game of brinkmanship. The side of the ousted President Mohammed Morsi seems to have nothing left but to take to the streets. They have been killed by the hundreds. Over a thousand, what's called elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, were detained last night. A very severe crackdown on them. And so they feel disenfranchised and completely pushed out of politics.

On the other side, there's a very widespread support for the military. So it's a very worrying situation. I've been covering the country for the past two and a half years now, ever since the revolution began. I always had a glimmer of hope but for once, now that glimmer seems to have completely been blackened out.

SIMON: Sharif Abdel Kouddous is a correspondent for Democracy Now, in Cairo. Thanks for being us.

KOUDDOUS: Thank you for having me.

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