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Troops, Protesters Clash In Cairo

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A protest in the Egyptian capital turned bloody earlier today as soldiers used tear gas, batons and gunfire to forcibly disperse protesters from Cairo's most famous square. Officials said one person was killed, scores more were injured in the attack, which highlighted growing friction between the army and protesters over the slow pace of democratic reforms in Egypt.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo and has this story.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The soldiers' attack, captured here in a YouTube video, was reminiscent of the tactics Egyptian security forces used to try and suppress earlier protests against then President Hosni Mubarak.

Backed by armored vehicles, the soldiers fired guns and rushed the center of Tahrir Square, where people had set up tents.

Mr. MAHMOUD ASSAD: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Later in the morning, protester Mahmoud Assad, whose face was covered in blood, says some demonstrators began to pray as the troops approached. He says one was an army officer who'd joined the demonstration hours earlier. Assad claims one soldier approached the officer, called him a traitor, and then shot him dead. Other witnesses say the troops beat protesters and dragged them away, throwing them into police trucks.

Protesters, in turn, set fire to two troop carriers. By sunrise, the square was filled with shattered glass, bullet casings and debris. Soon, crowds of protesters gathered there once more.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: They barricaded themselves with metal gates and barbed wire.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: They chanted for the resignation of Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, just as they had done for Mubarak months earlier. Tantawi heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that currently rules Egypt.

Protester Salma Said says the military's brutal tactics will not stop the demonstrations. She says protesters will continue a sit-in here until the military brings Mubarak and his family to trial on corruption charges.

Ms. SALMA SAID: It's very sad that we reached this point, but nothing significant is happening from the demands of the revolution, and people cannot guarantee that the military council is at all supporting the revolution as it's claiming.

NELSON: Such sentiments are in sharp contrast to the fanfare with which protesters greeted the Egyptian army when it first rolled into Tahrir Square in late January. Many praised the military for refusing to fire on protesters. They welcomed the generals as they stepped in to rule following Mubarak's resignation.

But tensions have grown over the slow pace of reforms and the secrecy with which the military rulers operate. There are also allegations the military tortured and abused protesters it arrested last month.

Meanwhile, the army on its Facebook page dismissed the protest as thuggery stirred up by some former ruling party members they plan on arresting.

General ISMAIL ETMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: At a news conference in Heliopolis, General Ismail Etman also denied live ammunition was used or that any of eight army officers who had joined the protesters were killed. He says a preliminary investigation suggests protesters held some of the officers against their will when the military was trying to clear the square.

Meanwhile, some backers of the protest movement are trying to diffuse tensions. Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei said in a Twitter message that trust between the Egyptian army and people is a, quote, "red line" that must be preserved for the sake of the nation.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Merrit Kennedy also contributed to that report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.