- demonstrations - Egypt - Hosni Mubarak - unrest
Premier apologises for attack on protesters by government supporters
Egypt’s premier Ahmed Shafiq (pictured) apologised Thursday for an attack on protesters by supporters of President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Shafiq also offered to negotiate with the protesters, who are demanding that Mubarak resign.
AFP - Egypt's embattled government announced a slew of measures on Thursday aimed at defusing a bloody revolt and taking back the initiative, as protesters battled pro-regime militants for control of Cairo's Tahrir Square and spurned an offer for talks.
Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq apologised for the deadly violence that has raged in the square for more than 24 hours and that has been thought by many to have been sparked by government agents provocateurs.
"Egyptian hearts are bleeding," he said of the clashes in which at least five people were killed and hundreds hurt, and promised an enquiry.
The new premier also said he "ready to go to Tahrir Square to talk to the protesters" in a reversal of the government's stance since protests broke out on January 25.
Meanwhile, the public prosecutor said officials, including widely hated former interior minister Habib al-Adly, have been banned from travel and their accounts frozen pending investigation.
And Vice President Omar Suleiman called on security authorities to release detained youth "not involved in criminal acts."
There have been no recent figures on arrests since unrest broke out on January 25, but at least 1,000 people were said last week to have been detained.
But a coalition of activists rejected Shafiq's offer, which runs counter to the regime's previous insistence that it would not talk with the opposition until protesters went home.
Amr Salah, a coalition representative, told AFP they "will not accept any dialogue with the regime until our principal demand is met, and that is for President Hosni Mubarak to step down."
As the protests entered their 10th day, the opposition National Association for Change rejected any talks with Mubarak's regime before the veteran leader goes, spokesman Mohammed Abul Ghar told AFP.
"Our decision is clear: no negotiations with the government before Mubarak goes. After that, we're ready for dialogue with (new Vice President Omar) Suleiman," he said.
The coalition includes leading dissident and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, members of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the Kefaya (Change) movement and other political parties.
Undaunted by what they say has been a regime campaign of intimidation, the protesters say they will proceed with plans for a massive demonstration on Friday, their designated "departure day" for the 82-year-old president.
Running battles in Tahrir Square, the focal point of the anti-Mubarak protests, broke out on Wednesday, raged through the night and were continuing sporadically more than 24 hours later.
The health ministry saying five people were killed and at least 836 hurt, while an AFP tally puts the death toll at seven.
More than 300 people have died since the unrest broke out and close to 4,000 injured.
Shafiq offered his "apologies for what happened yesterday," saying on state television that "there will be an enquiry."
He later told journalists he was unsure whether the attacks had been organised, and lamented that he did not have enough police to provide security.
"I don't know if it was organised or spontaneous," he told a televised news conference. "There were clashes. And clashes between youths are always more heated. It seems they were carrying some weapons.
Egypt's police disappeared from the streets on Friday night after two days of running street battles that caused most of the casualties so far.
"I do not have enough police," Shafiq said. "When the army moved in many of the riot police went back to their villages and we can't get them to come back."
Several foreign journalists have been the target of violent attacks, a media watchdog and news organisations said, apparently on charges of fuelling the uprising with their coverage.
That brought a sharp rebuke from the US State Department, which condemned a "concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo and interfere with their reporting."
Early on Thursday, around 50 soldiers moved in to Tahrir Square to create a buffer zone, but pro-regime militants later broke through the lines to hurl stones, correspondents said.
In a renewed effort to separate the sides, army tanks pushed pro-Mubarak supporters away from the demonstration.
Mid-afternoon, intense gunfire could be heard from the square, an AFP reporter said.
On Thursday, regime supporters reappeared on the 6 October Bridge over the Nile, which opens into the square. One of them in a red jumper looked down at the crowd below and repeatedly drew a finger across his throat.
They threw fire crackers at the protesters, who fell back and then regrouped, shouting at the army for failing to intervene.
"Why aren't you doing anything? Why aren't you doing anything?"
Eventually, the protesters managed to get onto the bridge and began fighting the Mubarak supporters, stones flying everywhere.
In Tahrir Square itself, demonstrator Mohammed Ali, 23, told AFP: "I am here because my government is not good. They arrest people. There are no human rights."
Gesturing at pro-Mubarak demonstrators, he said: "This is Mubarak's mafia and they are trying to terrify us."
"We are not interested in negotiations. It's been 30 years of talking. Mubarak has to leave."
Abdelrahman Amr Zaki, 15, rejected what he said were claims the protests are just about economic conditions.
"They are not. My father drives a BMW and I have a very good home. There is no democracy, no freedom. We just want Mubarak to go."
The United States condemned the violence against "peaceful protesters," and UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the attacks on demonstrators were "unacceptable."
US President Barack Obama had called for the transition from Mubarak's rule to begin immediately after the veteran president announced late on Tuesday that he would not seek re-election in September.
The Egyptian foreign ministry rejected the call from Obama and other world leaders, saying it "sought to inflame the internal situation."
On the economic front, the Fitch agency lowered Egypt's debt ratings by one notch, following the lead of Moody's and Standard & Poor's, due to the intensified violence.
And state television said Cairo's stock exchange will reopen on Monday after what will be a 10-day closure. The bourse was last open on January 27 when it plunged nearly 10 percent.
The US State Department issued a stark travel warning for citizens in Egypt, urging those who want to leave to "immediately" to head for the airport, while the British government said it was evacuating diplomatic family members and non-essential embassy staff.
And up to 600 UN agency employees and their families were to be airlifted to Cyprus on Thursday, with only essential staff staying on, a UN spokesman said.