Friday, January 28, 2011

Egyptian military deploys in Cairo under curfew

An Egyptian protester throws stones towards a line of riot police in Cairo on Friday. (Victoria Hazou / AP)
A female activist shouts at anti-riot policemen who blocked the way to a journalists' syndicate in downtown Cairo on Jan. 26. (Ben Curtis / AP)
Ruling party HQ ablaze; protesters climb on tanks in Suez; Nobel Prize winner under house arrest

NBC, and news services NBC, and news services

CAIRO — Shots were heard in central Cairo on Friday after military units moved in to quell an "open revolt" against President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule by tens of thousands of protesters.

Demonstrators were trying to storm the foreign ministry and the state TV building in Cairo, The Associated Press reported. Violent clashes were also reported near the Egyptian parliament.

Television images showed several buildings in Cairo, including the headquarters of the ruling party, ablaze. Flames also threatened the Egyptian National Museum.

Friday saw demonstrations across the country, which continued despite a 13-hour military curfew which began at 6 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET). It initially covered the cities of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria, but was later extended to cover all cities. Demonstrators stayed on the streets in defiance of security forces, some mounting armored cars, cheering and waving flags.

The Al-Jazeera TV network said at least one person was killed, while Reuters reported at least five deaths. Neither could not be immediately verified.

Some 870 protesters were wounded, medical sources said, more than doubling their previous estimate. Medical officials told Reuters 450 protesters were treated on the streets and not taken to hospital, while 420 others were hospitalized.

Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei was put under house arrest after he joined a march earlier in the day. He and scores of protesters were forced to seek refuge in a mosque after police used water cannons and tear gas.

There were also reports that protesters had taken control of central areas of Suez and Alexandria.

Egypt's national carrier said it had also suspended its flights from Cairo for 12 hours. European airlines also modified their schedules for flights to and from Egypt, cancelling some services, due to the curfew.

'Deep concern'

The U.S. State Department said that the situation was of "deep concern," adding that "reform is vital." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed for the government to allow peaceful protests and for the people on the streets to "refrain from violence."

The U.S. also warned citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Egypt and urged Americans in the country to stay put.

Shortly after the curfew began, BBC News reported that tanks had moved in to Suez and Cairo.

NBC News' Richard Engel said people were in "open revolt" on the streets of Cairo.

Engel said many people were praying in the streets, "daring" the police to move against them and enforce the curfew.

After the army moved in, Engel said the troops appeared to be taking "almost no action to stop these protests, to enforce this curfew."

"A scene that could become iconic of the day is unfolding right below me. There's an army APC, an armored personnel carrier. Instead of firing on the protesters or pushing them back, it has been surrounded by protesters … one person is standing on top of it, waving an Egyptian flag," he told msnbc TV.

Engel said the demonstrators did not want to confront the army and realized the Tunisian government had fallen when its army refused to stop the protests.

Some protesters chanted slogans calling for the army to support them, complaining of police violence.

"Where is the army? Come and see what the police is doing to us. We want the army. We want the army," the protesters in one area of central Cairo shouted.

However, Egyptian state television said the military would work in tandem with the police to get people off the streets.

"According to what some provinces witnessed in terms of riots, lawlessness, looting, destruction, attack and burning of public and private property including attacks on banks and hotels, President Hosni Mubarak decreed a curfew as a military ruler," a state TV announcer said.

The protests began when groups of thousands of protesters gathered at at least six venues in Cairo, a city of about 18 million people, and then marched toward major squares and crossed Nile bridges.

"I can't believe our own police, our own government would keep beating up on us like this," said Cairo protester Ahmad Salah, 26. "I've been here for hours and gassed and keep going forward, and they keep gassing us, and I will keep going forward. This is a cowardly government and it has to fall. We're going to make sure of it."

At several confrontation points, police used rubber bullets, batons, water cannons and tear gas against the stone-throwing demonstrators.

ElBaradei, who took to the streets Friday for the first time since his return to Egypt on Thursday, was walking with one group when clashes broke out with police.

They used batons to beat some of his supporters, who surrounded ElBaradei to protect him.

He and protesters were soaked with water cannons and eventually were forced to take refuge in a mosque, where they were trapped by riot police.

Inside the mosque, ElBaradei was prevented from leaving by tear gas. The canisters set several cars ablaze outside and several people fainted and suffered burns.

"We are the ones who will bring change," said 21-year-old Ahmed Sharif, one of scores who were with ElBaradei. "If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come," he screamed through a surgical mask he wore to ward off the tear gas.

'Oppression is growing'

Abeer Ahmed, a 31-year-old woman who showed up for ElBaradei with her toddler, said she has a law degree but makes a living cleaning homes.

"Nothing good is left in the country," she said. "Oppression is growing."

ElBaradei later attempted to march again with supporters chanting "peaceful, peaceful."

Hours later, it emerged he was under house arrest. Police stationed outside his suburban Cairo home told him he could not leave the building. It was unclear how he got there.

Speaking to Reuters, one witness described blood streaming from people with head wounds and others collapsing to the ground. Other witnesses gave similar descriptions.

Al-Jazeera also said opposition politician Ayman Nour, who ran in the 2005 presidential election, was hurt. Citing his son, the station said the politician was in intensive care after being hit on the head by a rock.

In Suez, Al-Jazeera reported at least five tanks moved in after the crowd chased away police from the central area of the city.

Dozens of protesters climbed onto the tanks, a Reuters witness said, and tried to talk to the soldiers. One tank had about 25 protesters on it, the witness said.

The troops tried to wave them off and residents also told Reuters that soldiers had opened fire. It was not immediately possible to confirm their reports.

Earlier in Suez, the body of a protester was carried through the streets. "They have killed my brother," one of the demonstrators shouted.

There was also a report that protesters had overcome the police in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.

The Guardian newspaper quoted Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch, as saying: "The police have now given up fighting the protesters. The police and protesters are now talking, with protesters bringing water and vinegar (for tear gas) to the police.

"Now walking down to downtown Alexandria, the whole road is packed as far as we can see, people shouting slogans against Mubarak and his son Gamal ... asking others to join them," he added. "It is a very festive atmosphere. Women in veils, old men, children, I even saw a blind man being led. And there are no police anywhere."

'I want a better future'

There were smaller protests in Assiut, which is located south of Cairo, and al-Arish in the Sinai peninsula.

Regional television stations were reporting clashes between thousands of demonstrators and police in Alexandria and Minya, which is south of Cairo.

"It's time for this government to change," said Amal Ahmed, a 22-year-old protester. "I want a better future for me and my family when I get married."

Friday's protest were by far the largest and most violent since they began Tuesday.

Demonstrators are demanding 82-year-old Mubarak's ouster and venting their rage at years of government neglect of rampant poverty, unemployment and rising food prices.

The protesters have said they are emboldened by the uprising in Tunisia, another north African Arab nation.

Egypt is Washington's closest Arab ally, but Mubarak may be losing U.S. support.

An Obama administration official said Friday the U.S. will review its $1.5 billion in aid to the nation.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation. U.S. officials are now increasing calls on Mubarak to respond with restraint and reverse steps taken to cut off the protesters' ability to communicate.

The Egyptian authorities appeared to have disrupted social networking sites, used as an organizing tool by protesters, throughout the week.

Those disruptions escalated Friday, when Internet and cell phone services, at least in Cairo, appeared to be largely cut off.

With two-thirds of Egypt's 79 million people under the age of 30 and with many frustrated by largely toothless opposition parties, many of Egypt's youth have turned to the digital sphere as one of the few channels available to express their anger.

The attempts to sever the protesters lines of communication did not prevent tens of thousands from flooding the streets.


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