Egyptian security forces deployed snipers, tear gas and bulldozers Wednesday to break up two sit-ins by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, in an assault that claimed more than 500 lives, drew swift international condemnation and led to the resignation of the vice president in the military-backed interim government.
Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood planned to hold a prayer service to mourn the victims and protest marches in Cairo and Alexandria on Thursday.
Interim President Adly Mansour imposed a monthlong state of emergency and nighttime curfew in Cairo and 10 provinces, giving security forces the power to detain civilians without charge.
There were conflicting reports on the death toll.
Egypt's Health Ministry said on Thursday that at least 525 civilians had been killed and more than 3,700 injured. The Interior Ministry said 43 policemen had also been killed.
Gehad El-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, told The Washington Times more than 4,000 people had been killed.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry denounced the violence as "deplorable." He called the police crackdown "a serious blow to reconciliation" between Mr. Morsi's supporters who want him reinstated and millions of Egyptians whose protests of Mr. Morsi's increasingly authoritarian policies led to the military's July 3 overthrow of the democratically elected president.
"Egyptians inside and outside of the government need to take a step back," Mr. Kerry said. "They need to calm the situation and avoid further loss of life."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest urged the government and the protesters to end the violence. "The world is watching what is happening in Cairo," he warned.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and European officials also condemned the violence.
The crackdown in Cairo sparked violence in other parts of Egypt. Mr. Morsi's supporters attacked government buildings and burned at least seven Coptic Christian churches, Egyptian officials said.
Egypt's interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said in a televised address that the decision to end the 6-week-old sit-ins was not easy. Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim blamed the protesters for the violence and said police had orders not to use live ammunition.
However, Mr. Ibrahim's claims were disputed by Egyptians who said snipers shot Morsi supporters in the head, neck and chest in a clear sign that they intended to kill. They distributed photos of bloodied victims, but the authenticity of those images could not be verified immediately.
Amnesty International said Egyptian authorities' promises to "use lethal methods only as a last resort to disperse protesters appear to have been broken."
Mr. Morsi's supporters had been staging sit-ins around Cairo's Raba'a al Adawiya mosque and at al-Nahda Square near Cairo University since he was ousted.
Security forces moved in on the protest sites early Wednesday, apparently catching the protesters off guard. The smaller protest at al-Nahda Square was the first to be cleared.
The operation at the more densely crowded protest site near the mosque in Cairo's eastern district of Nasr City produced a majority of the casualties.
At one point, protesters pushed an occupied armored police vehicle 50 feet off a bridge in Cairo. They then threw stones at the stunned and injured police officers who crawled out of the mangled vehicle, The Associated Press reported.
'Cannot bear one drop of blood'
In his resignation letter to Mr. Mansour, interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei wrote that he "cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood."
"It has become difficult for me to continue bearing responsibility for decisions that I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear," he wrote.
A large number of the Muslim Brotherhood's senior officials and members were arrested in a nationwide crackdown on the Islamists.
The interim government's decision to impose a state of emergency effectively strengthens the military's control over Egypt.
Mr. Kerry said the Obama administration is opposed to the state of emergency and called for it to be lifted as soon as possible.
In another move widely seen as a sign of the military's creeping power, the interim government Tuesday appointed 25 provincial governors, 17 of whom are army generals and two from the police.
Mr. El-Haddad, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said in a phone interview from Cairo that the gubernatorial appointments were a clear sign that Egypt has "returned to the Mubarak era."
Hosni Mubarak's 29-year grip on power in Egypt ended when he was forced to resign the presidency on Feb. 11, 2011, as part of the Arab Spring protest movement.
Mr. Morsi has been detained at a secret location since his ouster. On Monday, an Egyptian judge extended his detention by 15 days.
Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagy, whose 17-year-old daughter was among those killed Wednesday, warned on Al-Jazeera TV that Egypt was drifting toward a civil war similar to the one that has raged in Syria since March 2011. Mr. al-Beltagy was later detained.
Military's popularity soars
At least two journalists — cameraman Mick Deane from Britain's Sky News television and reporter Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz from the Gulf News of the United Arab Emirates — were among those killed Wednesday. Police detained many other journalists covering the conflict.
Before the bloodshed Wednesday, at least 140 of Mr. Morsi's supporters had been killed since his ouster.
On July 8, more than 50 people were killed in a military crackdown in Cairo; and on July 27, at least 80 people were killed by police.
Despite the bloodshed, the popularity of Army Chief Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who toppled Mr. Morsi, has soared among Egyptians opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.
"People don't want a large death toll, but they are also very sympathetic for what the military would need to do to be able to disperse the [protesters]," said Manal Omar, associate vice president of the Middle East and North Africa program at the United States Institute of Peace.
The military remains popular in Egypt, but "a high body count" could change that, Ms. Omar said at a briefing Wednesday in Washington.
However, she added, "If I were a betting person, I would say, 'If Sissi were to run [for president] today, he would win by a landslide.'"
Gen. el-Sissi has said he has no political ambitions.
After Mr. Morsi's ouster, Gen. el-Sissi appointed Mr. Mansour, chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, as interim president and laid out his road map for a return to democracy.
The Obama administration has said it is not in U.S. national interests to describe the military's actions as a coup. Such a determination would force the U.S. to cut off the $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt's military. The aid has helped keep Egypt's rulers committed to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Diplomacy efforts failed
International diplomatic efforts last week failed to resolve the political crisis created by Mr. Morsi's ouster. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton were among the foreign officials who tried to encourage talks between the two sides.
Last week, the interim government blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the failure to open negotiations to end the protests.
Mr. Kerry said Mr. Burns and EU officials "provided constructive ideas and left them on the table during our talks in Cairo last week."
"From my many phone calls with many Egyptians, I believe they know full well what a constructive process would look like," he added.
Mr. Kerry spoke with Egypt's interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and Mr. ElBaradei on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Mr. ElBaradei, a former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, had been in favor of a negotiated settlement of the crisis.
In his resignation letter, he pointed out that there were "peaceful ways to end this clash in society."
"The beneficiaries of what happened today are those who call for violence, terrorism and the most extreme groups," Mr. ElBaradei wrote.
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