Egypt imposes curfew in Abbassiya after clashes; 2 killed, 296 injured, 170 arrested

Hundreds of troops guarding the ministry surged forward when protesters began cutting through barbed wire used to seal off the ministry building in Cairo's central Abbasiya neighborhood. (Al Arabiya)

Egypt’s military council on Friday imposed curfew in the central Cairo neighborhood of Abbassiya from 11:00 pm on Friday until 7:00 am on Saturday (Cairo Local Time), after fierce clashes between troops and anti-military protesters there.

At least two people were killed in fierce clashes between anti-military protesters and soldiers in Cairo, officials at a hospital that received the dead and medics said.

The officials at the al-Zahra University hospital said they received two people who died in the skirmishes outside the defense ministry. A frontline medic group said the two died of gunshot wounds, according to AFP.

An Egyptian soldier, described as “conscript,” was shot dead during the clashes, the Health Ministry said in a statement published by the official MENA news agency.

“A curfew has been imposed in the Abbassiya square, around the defense ministry and the surrounding streets,” said General Mukhtar al-Mulla, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in a television address.

At least 296 people were also hurt in the clashes, the health ministry said in a statement, including 131 treated in hospital.

The military arrested 170 people who have been involved in the clashes, the military prosecution said. A ruling military council said in the TV statement that “all legal measures will be taken against those involved in the Abbassiya events, or those inciting them.”

Earlier, heavy gunfire could be heard as clashes between troops and anti-military protesters spread around the defense ministry in Cairo on Friday and street battles raged in side roads, an AFP reporter said.

Military police used tear gas and water cannon, under a volley of rocks hurled from both sides.

Fierce fighting

Hundreds of troops guarding the ministry surged forward when protesters began cutting through barbed wire used to seal off the ministry building in Abbasiya neighborhood in central Cairo.

The protesters responded by throwing rocks towards the soldiers, who responded with water cannon, according to Reuters.

Bleeding protesters were ferried away by motorbike by fellow demonstrators and ambulances rushed to the scene of the anti-military rally.

Reuters witnesses counted at least eight people hurt in the clashes which flared as thousands demonstrated in Cairo to denounce violence against protesters and the exclusion of candidates from a presidential election.

Military police holding their shields in one hand, picked up the rocks from the ground and threw them back at the protesters, in the first violence of the day after peaceful rallies throughout the morning.

Soldiers charged forward and retreated several times from the barbed wire separating them from the protesters.

Thousands of anti-military protesters took to the streets Friday in Cairo and Alexandria, days after deadly clashes near the defense ministry raised tensions ahead of landmark presidential elections, AFP correspondents reported.

In the capital, several thousand gathered in Tahrir Square and hundreds were in the Abassiya neighbourhood near the defence ministry, despite stern warnings from the army.

Others carrying posters of demonstrators who died during last year’s uprising against president Hosni Mubarak made their way to Abbassiya, where army troops were stationed along barbed wire fences.

Friday’s protests come just three weeks before the country’s first post-revolt presidential election, after which the ruling military is to hand power to civilian rule.

But protesters say they fear the elections will be rigged in favour of a pro-military candidate. Others say they do not trust the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to fully hand power to civilian rule.

Friday’s protests also followed the killing of at least 11 people in clashes that broke out Wednesday when apparent supporters of the military rulers attacked a mostly Islamist crowd staging a sit-in outside the Ministry of Defense in Cairo to call for an end to the generals’ rule.

Army troops were accused of standing idly by near the clashes and not intervening until after the deaths. Some suspect the military wants to create turmoil so it can justify holding onto power by claiming it is needed to maintain law and order.

While some liberal and religious groups called for Friday’s protests to be staged in Cairo’s Abbassiya neighborhood, near the defense ministry, others, especially the Muslim Brotherhood group, called for the protest to be held in the Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Jan.12, 2011 revolution.

Warnings by the army

Maj. Gen. Mullah sternly had warned protesters that if they try to approach the Defense Ministry.

“Self-defense is applicable against anyone who approaches a military facility. Whoever does that must endure the consequences,” Mullah told a news conference. “The Defense Ministry, all military units and facilities are symbols of military honor and the dignity of the state, those who approach them will have themselves to blame.”

Another senior member of the ruling military council tried to counter accusations from some rival politicians that the military might use the violence as a pretext to ignore its own deadline to relinquish control of the country.

“We say it frankly and clearly. The armed forces and their supreme council are committed to the handover of power on June 30,” Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar said. “We don’t desire power. The Supreme Council (of the Armed Forces) is not a substitute for legitimacy in Egypt.”

“Have mercy on the Supreme Council,” he pleaded. “Our hands are clean of Egyptian blood.”

Al-Assar also said that it was “dangerous” for the protesters to stage their sit-in near the Defense Ministry and denied charges that the military was behind Wednesday’s attack on the protesters. He told reporters that the military, which took power after Mubarak’s ouster, will ensure the integrity and fairness of the presidential election

The military has been accused of badly bungling the transition to democratic rule over the past year, when more than 100 people have died in political violence. It cracked down on pro-democracy protests and hauled more than 10,000 civilians to trial before military tribunals. The generals have failed restore security which deteriorated sharply after the uprising, when police vanished from the streets. And they have failed to prop up the battered economy.

Rights advocates and various political groups allege the military is scheming to ensure a political role for itself after handing over power to protect its vast business holdings and other privileges from coming under scrutiny by a civilian authority.

Protesters have long called for the military to immediately step down, but the generals have responded by saying they would stick to the timetable they announced for the transfer of power.

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