- Associated Press - Sunday, August 10, 2014

CAIRO (AP) - Around 6:30 a.m., police armored vehicles rumbled up to the barricades at the edges of the anti-government sit-in where thousands of Islamists had camped out for weeks in a Cairo square.

First came tear gas. Then quickly, police started using machine guns. Every five minutes, student Mahmoud el-Iddrissi remembers, they swept the barricade with bullets. A friend next to him stood to throw a firecracker and immediately fell, shot in his neck and shoulder.

The scene on Aug. 14, 2013, was the start of the biggest massacre in modern Egyptian history, as security forces crushed the sit-in by Islamist supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the elected president who had been removed by the military a month earlier. At least 624 people were killed during 12 hours of mayhem in Cairo’s Rabaah el-Adawiyah Square, though rights groups have said the toll may be several hundred higher.

An Associated Press investigation into the day shows that commanders gave security forces virtually carte blanche to use deadly force. Authorities contend police only responded with live ammunition on anyone who fired on them - and eight policemen were killed by gunmen in the square during the assault.

But broad orders given to the security forces, revealed to AP, emphasized crushing resistance. The orders to police were to “act according to the situation and by degrees of escalation,” two generals in the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, told the AP. But also, security forces were told to expect protesters to have weapons and were free to swiftly move to eliminate them, they said.

“We explained earlier to them that self-defense is legitimate and they will not be subjected to prosecution later on,” one general said.

Steps were taken to ensure that. One of the generals said ammunition was brought to the troops from multiple storehouses to obfuscate its origin. Release logs were covered up, he said, so they could not be used as evidence if any policemen were prosecuted, as had happened previously after the protests against Mubarak.

A few days before the assault, a top Interior Ministry official gave a fiery speech to Central Security troops vowing revenge for policemen killed by Islamic militants. “The blood of our sons in the police will not go in vain,” he told them, according to the generals. The two generals spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the planning.

Interviews with more than 20 surviving protesters, security officials and diplomats also uncovered another key factor. Both the military-backed government and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the main force behind the protest, staunchly resisted any concessions that international mediators hoped could avert the disaster. While giving mixed signals to mediators, the military-backed government never wavered from its stance that the sit-in had to be removed, and the Brotherhood and its allies increasingly committed their cause on an all-or-nothing stand in Rabaah.

The sit-in arose in response to rallies by millions of Egyptians demanding the removal of Morsi, the Brotherhood leader who had become Egypt’s first freely elected president a year earlier. After his July 3, 2013, ouster by then-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the sit-in swelled with crowds of families camped out in hundreds of tents. From a stage at the center, prominent clerics and other figures daily told crowds they would hold out until Morsi was restored. A second, smaller sit-in was located across the capital in Nahda Square.

Tensions swelled throughout July. Security officials called Rabaah a threat, saying armed “terrorists” were among the protesters. Independent rights groups have since confirmed that there were a few carrying automatic weapons among the crowds, but that it hardly constituted an “armed camp.” Twice, police opened fire on protesters in other parts of the city and killed more than 100.

Within 15 minutes of the start of the dispersal on Aug. 14, casualties started flooding into a clinic set up by protesters in the reception hall of the Rabaah Mosque: guards from the barricades on the sit-in’s eastern edge with gaping wounds from heavy caliber guns, said Fatma Yahya Bayad, a surgeon in the clinic.

On the western side of the sit-in, police fired warning shots in the air for the first 20 minutes. Then they came under gunfire from nearby buildings, the two generals said. Lt. Mohammed Gouda, who was circulating with a loudspeaker to tell residents to stay indoors, was the first policeman shot and killed.

A key question about Rabaah is who shot first. A comparison of accounts does not definitively answer that because witnesses’ recollection of timing is likely not exact.

The generals said that when Gouda was killed, security forces panicked and let loose with heavy fire.

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