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Violence Escalates Between Mubarak Enemies, Allies

There was more gunfire in Cairo's Tahrir Square early Thursday apparently aimed at anti-government demonstrators though exactly who was firing on protesters is unclear.

The latest reports of violence come after a day marked by escalating violence with hundreds reported to have been injured and killed.

It has turned into a medieval war. If you interview anyone here he will tell you that it's either me or that regime and the president. And everyone here is willing to die.

On Wednesday, firebombs and rocks rained down on Cairo's central square during clashes that could signal a dangerous new phase in Egypt's upheaval. Egyptian officials say hundreds have been wounded and at least three people were killed.

Throngs of supporters of President Hosni Mubarak — some on horses and camels, some carrying machetes and sticks — took to the streets hours after the president announced late Tuesday that he would step down when his term ends in September. They converged on Tahrir Square, where thousands of opposition protesters were pushing ahead with rallies demanding Mubarak's immediate ouster.

"It has turned into a medieval war," said Aida el-Kashaf, a 22-year-old filmmaker who has slept in the square for five days. "If you interview anyone here he will tell you that it's either me or that regime and the president. And everyone here is willing to die."

Many Mubarak supporters said he was Egypt's best chance for maintaining stability. They praised him for keeping the country at peace after a series of wars with Israel. Others said they felt personally humiliated by anti-Mubarak demonstrators jeering a man they saw as a symbol of the nation.

Ahab Wadi, a 31-year-old cook, said the supporters were ready for a battle.

"This is not our president only," he said, "it's our father. Mubarak is our president. He [fought] for us, and we will fight for him."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told CNN that it was "unfortunate that things went out of control at times," but that the Mubarak supporters were not backed by the government.

"This is a scene of very raw emotions that has been boiling for many days now," Zaki said, suggesting that the pro-government demonstrators were "people you normally see around the pyramids" who had suffered economic hardship as a result of the protests.

He said the timing coincided with Mubarak's speech because the president's words "touched a lot of people in a very emotional" way.

'Hired Thugs'

A paramedic helps a wounded demonstrator in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday.
Mohammed Abed / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A paramedic helps a wounded demonstrator in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday.

Mubarak supporters reportedly broke through a human chain of anti-government demonstrators in the square. Angry opponents of Mubarak snatched posters of the president out of the hands of his supporters and ripped them to shreds.

"At one point, the pro-Mubarak demonstrators led a charge into the crowd on horseback and on camel, and that created chaos," said NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from Tahrir Square, which has been the center of anti-government demonstrations for more than a week.

Opposition protesters retaliated, dragging some from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. Anti-Mubarak demonstrators were seen running with their shirts or faces bloodied, and some men and women in the crowd were weeping. The scent of tear gas wafted over the area, but it was not clear who had fired it.

Egyptian state TV broadcast an order for the protesters to evacuate the square.

The battles continued even as night fell, with both sides lobbing "rocks, metal bars, glass, Molotov cocktails — anything they can get their hands on," NPR's Eric Westervelt reported from the square.

Both sides took cover behind abandoned trucks on the square, hurling chunks of concrete and bottles at each other. Pro-government forces dropped bricks and firebombs from rooftops circling the square.

Fighting between the two sides also erupted in the historic Mediterranean port of Alexandria right after Mubarak's address Tuesday.

The crowds that assembled in Cairo were considerably smaller but no less energized than Tuesday's show of force, when at least a quarter-million packed the central Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.

There were hundreds of people wounded, some being treated at a makeshift hospital at a mosque, others on the street amid the chaos.

"I got a brick in my head," said one protester who gave his name as only Mohammed. "We are here until Mubarak is out of the country. They are here to kill us, but we are going to stay here forever."

Westervelt said opposition protesters were emphatic that the pro-Mubarak forces are "hired thugs, members of the police and security forces."

"They are just trying to agitate people to get into a fight, to divert attention from the beautiful things that are being born in Tahrir Square," said Dalia Basili, a university professor.

Soldiers did little to intervene.

"The military is by and large standing back and letting the battle rage on," Westervelt said. "They have fired some warning shots in the air, but other than that, they are letting the forces go at it."

There was consensus that the inaction was "payback by police" for the week of anti-government protests, Westervelt said.

Some anti-Mubarak protesters argued with soldiers, begging them to help. "Why don't you protect us?" some shouted, while soldiers replied that they did not have orders to do so and told people to go home.

"These are paid thugs," 52-year-old Emad Nafa said of the attackers. "The army is neglectful. They let them in."

Angry opposition protesters seized men they claimed were undercover police sent as agitators to start fights. Some protesters were seen briefly beating at least one of the alleged agitators, but the crowd around them called out "Peacefully! Peacefully!" and the man was turned over to soldiers.

Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei accused the government of setting the scene for a battle.

"This is yet another symptom, or another indication, of a criminal regime using criminal acts," he said. "Everybody has the right to peaceful demonstration, but you don't get two opposing demonstrators face to face. I mean, then you are calling for violence. My fear is that it will turn into a bloodbath, particularly [because] we know that the guys that are supposedly pro-Mubarak are a bunch of thugs."

Calls For Restraint

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. did not know who unleashed the "thugs," but that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called Omar Suleiman, Egypt's new vice president, to urge him to investigate the attacks on protesters by pro-government supporters.

Crowley said Clinton condemned the violence and told Suleiman the government should hold to account those responsible.

Earlier Wednesday, a spokesman for Egypt's military appeared on national television and urged protesters to go home.

"The army forces are calling on you," the spokesman, Ismail Etman, said in a statement directed at the anti-government demonstrators. "You began by going out to express your demands, and you are the ones capable of restoring normal life."

But opposition forces — a disparate coalition of factions including the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ElBaradei — called for demonstrations to continue.

ElBaradei told Al-Jazeera television Wednesday that protesters were planning a "Friday of Departure" if Mubarak did not step down by then.

"I ask the army to intervene to protect Egyptian lives," Al-Jazeera quoted ElBaradei as saying.

The country's Health Ministry said Wednesday that more than 600 people have been injured to date in the demonstrations, and three people have died. Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid told The Associated Press that two young men were brought out of Tahrir Square in ambulances, one already dead and another who later died at the hospital from injuries. He did not specify the injuries. The third fatality was a man who fell from a bridge near the square.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that the U.S. "deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt" and called for restraint.

"The use of violence to intimidate the Egyptian people must stop," Gibbs said in a statement.

A former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, met with Mubarak earlier and made clear that it is the U.S. view that "his tenure as president is coming to a close," according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The continued chaos in Egypt has taken a toll on the country's economy, with Moody's cutting its sovereign rating to Ba2 on Wednesday, citing the unrest. The downgrading will make it harder for Egypt to borrow, which could further damage the economy and contribute to further unrest.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Eric Westervelt and Corey Flintoff reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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NPR Staff and Wires