At least three people are believed to have died and more than 1,500 others injured in continuing clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
Protesters from both sides fought pitched battles on Wednesday in Tahrir [Liberation] Square, the epicentre of ongoing opposition demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak for the past nine days.
An Al Jazeera correspondent, reporting from just outside the square late at night, said dozens of pro-Mubarak supporters had erected barricades on either side of a road, trapping the pro-democracy supporters. They were gathering stones, breaking streetlights and using balaclavas to cover their faces, apparently in preparation for a fresh standoff with the pro-democracy crowd.
Our correspondent said local residents thought the men preparing for the standoff were police officers but the claim could not be independently confirmed.
Just hours earlier, an Al Jazeera online producer reporting from near Tahrir Square said: “Someone – a few people actually – were dropping homemade bombs into the square from the buildings surrounding it.”
Gunshots were also regularly ringing out of the square.
The Reuters news agency reported quoting officials that three people were killed in Wednesday’s violence. It also quoted a doctor at the scene as saying that more than 1,500 had been injured.
Army standing by
Witnesses said the military allowed thousands of pro-Mubarak supporters, armed with sticks and knives, to enter the square. Opposition groups said Mubarak had sent in thugs to suppress anti-government protests.
One of our correspondents said the army seemed to be standing by and facilitating the clashes.
Though initially put on the backfoot by the sudden attack, determined anti-government protesters looked to be winning the battle against Mubarak supporters.
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Witnesses also said that pro-Mubarak supporters were dragging away protesters they had managed to grab and handing them over to security forces.
Salma Eltarzi, an anti-government protester, told Al Jazeera there were hundreds of wounded people. “There are no ambulances in sight, and all we are using is Dettol,” she said. “We are all so scared.”
Aisha Hussein, a nurse, said dozens of people were being treated at a makeshift clinic in a mosque near the square.
She described a scene of “absolute mayhem”, as protesters first began to flood into the clinic.
“People are coming in with multiple wounds. All kinds of contusions. We had one guy who needed stitches in two places on his face. Some have broken bones.”
Mustafa Hussein, a physician who was treating the injured at a makeshift hospital near Tahrir Square, told Al Jazeera that most of the injured protesters “coming in today are suffering from head injuries resulting from rocks being thrown at them”.
Meanwhile, another Al Jazeera correspondent said men on horseback and camels ploughed into the crowds as army personnel stood by.
At least six riders were dragged from their beasts, beaten with sticks by the protesters and taken away with blood streaming down their faces.
One of them was dragged away unconscious, with large blood stains on the ground at the site of the clash.
The worst of the fighting was just outside the world famous Egyptian Museum, which was targeted by looters last week.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent said a group of pro-government protesters took over army vehicles. They also took control of a nearby building and used the rooftop to throw concrete blocks, stones, and other objects.
Soldiers surrounding the square took cover from flying stones, and the windows of at least one army vehicle were broken. Some troops stood on tanks and appealed for calm but did not otherwise intervene.
Many of the pro-Mubarak supporters raised slogans like “Thirty Years of Stability, Nine Days of Anarchy”.
Al Jazeera’s Jane Dutton, also in Cairo, said that security guards have also been seen amongst the pro-Mubarak supporters, and it may be a precursor to the feared riot police arriving on the scene.
Dutton added that a journalist with the Al-Arabiya channel was stabbed during the clashes.
Several cars went up in flames near Liberation Square as riots raged deep into the night [AJ online producer]
Fighting took place around army tanks deployed around the square, with stones bouncing off the armoured vehicles.
Several groups were involved in fist fights, and some were using clubs. The opposition also said many among the pro-Mubarak crowd were policemen in plain clothes.
“Members of security forces dressed in plain clothes and a number of thugs have stormed Tahrir Square,” three opposition groups said in a statement.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent opposition figure, accused Mubarak of resorting to scare tactics. Opposition groups have reportedly also seized police identification cards amongst the pro-Mubarak demonstrators.
“I’m extremely concerned, I mean this is yet another symptom, or another indication, of a criminal regime using criminal acts,” ElBaradei said.
“My fear is that it will turn into a bloodbath,” he added, calling the pro-Mubarak supporters a “bunch of thugs”.
ElBaradei has also urged the army to intervene.
“I ask the army to intervene to protect Egyptian lives,” he told Al Jazeera, adding he said it should intervene “today” and not remain neutral.
Despite the clashes, anti-government protesters seeking Mubarak’s immediate resignation said they would not give up until Mubarak steps down.
Khalil, in his 60s and holding a stick, blamed Mubarak supporters and undercover security for the clashes.
“But we will not leave,” he told Reuters. “Everybody stay put.”
Pro-Mubarak supporters on camels and horses charged at protesters [AJ online producer]
Mohammed el-Belgaty, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Al Jazeera the “peaceful demonstrations in Tahrir Square have been turned into chaos”.
“The speech delivered by President Mubarak was very provocative as he used very sentimental words.
“Since morning, hundreds of these paid thugs started to demonstrate pretending to be supporting the President. Now they came to charge inside Tahrir Square armed with batons, sticks and some knives.
“Mubarak is asking the people to choose between him or chaos.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s clashes, supporters of the president staged a number of rallies around Cairo, saying Mubarak represented stability amid growing insecurity, and calling those who want his departure “traitors.”
“Yes to Mubarak, to protect stability,” read one banner in a crowd of 500 gathered near state television headquarters, about 1km from Tahrir Square.
A witness said organisers were paying people $17, to take part in the pro-Mubarak rally, a claim that could not be confirmed.
Other pro-Mubarak demonstrations occurred in the Mohandeseen district, as well as near Ramses Square.