- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 2, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — Thousands of supporters and opponents of President Hosni Mubarak battled in Cairo’s main square Wednesday, raining stones, bottles and firebombs on each other in scenes of uncontrolled violence as soldiers stood by without intervening. Government backers galloped in on horses and camels, only to be dragged to the ground and beaten bloody.

At the one of the fighting’s front lines, next to the famed Egyptian Museum at the edge of Tahrir Square, pro-government rioters blanketed the rooftops of nearby buildings and dumped bricks and firebombs onto the crowd below — in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum grounds.

At each of the six entrances to the sprawling plaza, the two sides pummeled each other with hurled chunks of concrete and bottles. Some among the more than 3,000 government supporters waved machetes as their anti-Mubarak rivals filled the air with a ringing battlefield din by banging metal fences with sticks. Within the square, dozens of men and women from the anti-Mubarak camp pried up the sidewalk with bars, broke it into pieces and ferried the piles of ammunition in canvas sheets to their colleages at the front.

The health minister announced one dead — a person in civilian clothes who may have been policeman, who fell off a nearby bridge — and nearly 600 injured. Bloodied young men staggered or were carried into makeshift clinics set up in mosques and alleyways by the anti-government side.

Protesters pleaded for protection from soldiers stationed at the square, who refused. Soldiers did nothing to stop the violence beyond firing an occasional shot in the air and no uniformed police were in sight. Some protesters wept and prayed in the square where around 10,000 had massed Wednesday morning and where only a day before they had held a joyous, peaceful rally of a quarter-million, the largest yet in more than a week of demonstrations demanding Mubarak leave power.

Supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak scuffle with anti-government protesters near Tahrir, or  Liberation, Square in central Cairo on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak scuffle with anti-government protesters near Tahrir, ... more >

Protesters contended there were plainclothed police among their attackers, showing police ID badges they said were wrested off them. Others, they said, were paid by the regime to assault them — a tactic that security forces have used in the past.

“After our revolution, they want to send people here to ruin it for us,” said Ahmed Abdullah, a 47-year-old lawyer in the square. “Why do they want us to be at each other’s throats, with the whole world watching us.”

Another man shrieked through a loudspeaker, “Hosni has opened the door for these thugs to attack us.”

In the evening, state TV ran an order — without saying from whom — for “all demonstrators to evacuate Tahrir Square” immediately. From the other side, senior anti-Mubarak figure Mohamed ElBaradei issued a statement demanding the military “intervene decisively to stop this massacre.”

The clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt’s 9-day-old upheaval: the first significant violence between supporters of the two camps. Clashes began, first in the port city of Alexandria, just hours after Mr. Mubarak — the country’s authoritarian ruler for nearly 30 years — went on national television Tuesday night and rejected protesters’ demands he step down immediately. He defiantly insisted he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term.

That speech marked an abrupt shift in the deteriorating crisis. A military spokesman appeared on state TV Wednesday and asked the protesters to disperse so life in Egypt could get back to normal. That was a major turn in the attitude of the army, which for the past few days allowed protests to swell.

Also, the regime for the first time Wednesday began to rally its supporters in significant numbers to demand an end to the unprecedented protest movement.

Some 20,000 pro-government demonstrators held an angry but mostly peaceful rally across the Nile River from Tahrir, saying Mr. Mubarak’s concessions were enough and demanding protests end now that he has promised not to run for re-election in September, named a new government and appointed a vice president for the first time.

Their gathering was shot through with bitterness at the jeers hurled against the 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak over the past nine days.

“I feel humiliated,” said Mohammed Hussein, a 31-year-old factory worker. “He is the symbol of our country. When he is insulted, I am insulted.”

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