The protests had largely been peaceful up until now. But on Wednesday, violent clashes broke out in central Cairo between opponents and supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as the situation in the capital appeared to be getting out of control.
Thousands of Mubarak supporters descended on Tahrir Square on Wednesday, carrying Egyptian flags and portraits of the president. They rode into the crowd on horses and camels and attacked protesters with whips and sticks. Members of the opposition, who had earlier built barricades to try to keep the pro-Mubarak elements out of the square, defended themselves with stones and steel bars. Shots were fired into the air, apparently by soldiers or police. The Egyptian Defense Ministry later denied that the army had fired on demonstrators, according to the news agency Reuters.
There were reports that hundreds of people had been injured. The news agency AFP quoted medical sources as saying that at least 500 people had been hurt in Wednesday's violence.
The television network Al Jazeera reported that journalists had been targeted, and that a reporter working for the Al Arabiya station had been stabbed. CNN reporter Anderson Cooper was also attacked by a mob and punched in the head, according to a Twitter message sent out by CNN. A BBC reporter said via Twitter that a female camera operator had been brutally beaten up, while the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet said that two of its reporters had been attacked by an angry mob.
According to SPIEGEL ONLINE reporter Matthias Gebauer, anti-government protesters had attacked injured Mubarak supporters with clubs as they were being carried out of the crowd. Organizers of the protests tried to stop the attacks, without success.
'We Can't Kill Each Other'
Young women repeatedly ran into the crowds and urged protesters not to throw any more stones. "We are all Egyptians, we can't kill each other," one shouted. Among the protesters were large numbers of young men from Cairo's impoverished suburbs, who apparently wanted revenge for the years of oppression under Mubarak. Men broke up paving slabs to get projectiles to throw.
As night fell, there were reports of petrol bombs being thrown. AFP reported that two Molotov cocktails had landed in the grounds of the Egyptian Museum.
The fighting between rival groups continued on Tahrir Square on Wednesday evening, with more pro-Mubarak forces storming the square. The situation became increasingly confused, as it became more and more difficult to determine who belonged to which group.
Hard-line opposition protesters appeared determined to remain within Tahrir Square, with some demonstrators telling journalists they did not feel it was safe to leave.
SPIEGEL ONLINE's Matthias Gebauer reported on Wednesday evening that looters were exploiting the chaos in the center of Cairo to break into parked cars.
Fears of a Bloodbath
Soldiers stationed around the square did not intervene in the clashes. According to a BBC journalist on the scene, there were too few soldiers present to keep order.
Eyewitnesses told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the army had supported the protesters by checking aggressive Mubarak supporters as they arrived and that they had discovered that some of the supposed supporters were actually members of the security forces.
Members of the opposition also claimed that pro-Mubarak protesters had been paid to come to the square. According to the news agency Reuters, the Egyptian Interior Ministry denied reports that plainclothes police were involved in the clashes.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent member of the opposition, told the BBC that he feared there would be a "bloodbath" on the square. He said the clashes were "yet another symptom of a criminal regime using criminal acts."
There were also reports of clashes between rival groups in the city of Alexandria, although CNN reported that demonstrations there had been largely peaceful.
Contact to the Muslim Brotherhood
According to sources in Berlin, the German government has been in contact with moderate forces within the Muslim Brotherhood to talk about the ongoing unrest. The German government also called on the Egyptian authorities to allow a process of democratization in the country.
Earlier, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had spoken to ElBaradei on the telephone, according to a statement by the German Foreign Ministry. "I call on the security forces in Egypt not to use force against the demonstrators," Westerwelle said in a statement after the telephone conversation. "Every additional escalation of the situation must be avoided."
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence on Wednesday. "Any attack against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable and I strongly condemn it," he said. British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday afternoon that the day's violence shows that Egyptian authorities need to accelerate the pace of reform. In reference to reports that pro-government forces had fomented violence, he added that "if it turns out that the regime in any way has been sponsoring or tolerating this violence, that would be completely and utterly unacceptable."
In a statement, the White House said that it "deplores and condemns" the violence and that it was "deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators."
Urged to Go Home
The violence appeared to be a move by the autocrat to clamp down on the anti-government protests, which are now in their ninth day. The army had earlier urged the demonstrators to go home. In a message on state television, an army spokesman told Egyptians that their message had been heard, in a reference to Mubarak's appearance on television on Tuesday evening, when the president announced that he would not run for reelection in September. Earlier on Tuesday, the opposition movement had held the largest rally in Egypt's history, with as many as 2 million people gathering in Tahrir Square, the center of the protest movement.
The United Nations estimates that around 300 people have been killed since the protests began last week. It is unclear whether Wednesday's violence will add to that toll.
With reporting by Matthias Gebauer and Daniel Steinvorth in Cairo
dgs - with wire reports
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