Raid on Egypt protest camp fuels anger
In Libya, 8 killed in fierce fighting; Syria strife rages
CAIRO — Thousands of demonstrators barricaded themselves in Cairo’s central square with burned-out troop carriers and barbed wire yesterday and demanded the removal of the military council ruling Egypt, infuriated after soldiers stormed their protest camp overnight, killing at least one person and injuring 71 others.
In a sign the confrontation could escalate, the military warned last evening that it will clear Tahrir Square of protesters “with all force and decisiveness’’ for life to get back to normal.
The warning could presage a repeat of the scene before dawn yesterday, when hundreds of soldiers, including a highly trained parachute unit, swarmed into Tahrir Square, firing in the air and beating protesters with clubs and shocking some with electrical batons.
Troops dragged away protesters, while others staggered away bleeding from beatings and gunshot wounds. Witnesses reported two killed, though the Health Ministry insisted there was only one death.
“It was like a horror movie,’’ said Mohammed Yehia, an activist and university student from the Nile Delta who was among the protesters.
The confrontation marks a dangerous juncture in Egypt’s three months of upheaval.
When longtime president Hosni Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11 after 18 days of mass demonstrations against his authoritarian rule, protesters hugged and kissed soldiers on tanks in Tahrir Square, praising them for protecting their “revolution.’’ Most welcomed the handover of power to the Armed Forces’ Supreme Council, a body of top generals headed by Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
In the weeks since, tensions have been on the rise. Protest leaders have been critical of the military council’s handling of the post-Mubarak transition and the public has been angered by its failure to prosecute the former president. But both sides also worked to stay on good terms.
The clashes resembled the ugliest moments of the protest movement against Mubarak, with authorities cracking down and protesters calling for the leader’s removal. The violence fed accusations among some protesters that the military — especially Tantawi, a Mubarak loyalist — was only trying to preserve the ousted president’s regime.
At least eight people were killed in the fighting over Ajdabiya, a hospital official said.
Recapturing the city would give the Libyan military a staging ground to attack the rebels’ main stronghold, Benghazi, about 100 miles farther east along the coastal highway. Khadafy’s forces were approaching Benghazi when they were driven back by the international air campaign launched last month to protect civilians and ground Khadafy’s aircraft.
For the rebels, losing the city would effectively bottle them into a coastal strip of eastern Libya and allow government forces to more tightly squeeze the few opposition pockets in the rest of the country, including the besieged western port of Misurata, where heavy clashes continued yesterday for a second day.
NATO airstrikes hit armored vehicles firing on civilians near both Misurata and Ajdabiya, said Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, who commands the Libya operation.
Activists vowed to accelerate their movement with daily protests nationwide, bringing new pressure on President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian regime.
Assad has answered the tens of thousands of protesters with both force and limited concessions that have failed to appease an emboldened movement inspired by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
“Old-style crackdowns and techniques simply do not work anymore,’’ said Aktham Nuaisse, a prominent Syrian pro-democracy activist. “The first thing authorities must do is stop this violence and enact serious reforms. Failing that, I fear everyone is going to lose control of the situation.’’
Protests erupted in Syria three weeks ago. Friday marked what appeared to be the largest and most widespread gatherings so far with demonstrations across the nation demanding sweeping reforms — and it brought the single bloodiest day of the uprising, with 37 killed across the country.
Most of the deaths were in Daraa, an impoverished city near the Jordanian border that has become the epicenter of the protest movement.