Armed attacks by 'civilians' on protesters raises nationwide death toll to 15

Sherif Tarek, Bel Trew, Tuesday 7 Feb 2012

Fighting near interior ministry Monday took new turn as heavily-armed civilians turn guns on anti-government protesters; man falls to death from a building roof; eyewitnesses suspect police guided latest assault

An Egyptian man, center, gestures to protestors asking them to stop throwing stones at security forces during clashes near the Interior Ministry in Cairo on 5 February (Photo: AP)

Egypt’s health ministry on Tuesday announced that the countrywide death toll due to ongoing clashes between protesters and security forces – which erupted in the wake of Wednesday's Port Said disaster that saw 74 football fans killed – had risen to 15 following the death of two civilians in downtown Cairo Monday evening.

A young man was thrown from the tax administration building, situated adjacent to Egypt’s interior ministry, while another was fatally wounded by birdshot. Both men were rushed to the nearby Qasr El-Ainy Hospital before succumbing to their injuries.

No other deaths were reported in other governorates on Monday, according to health ministry officials.

As of press time on Tuesday, tensions in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square had subsided, although close observers of the situation did not rule out the likelihood of renewed clashes.

For the last five days, on-again, off-again fighting has raged between protesters opposed to military rule and police near the interior ministry. The two latest victims, however, were killed at the hands of men in plainclothes, according to eyewitnesses.

Mahmoud Hani, a 21-year-old filmmaker, witnessed Monday's turmoil, which lasted into the early hours of the next day.

He said the identity of the assailants – who carried various firearms – remained unknown, although some have suggested they were actually undercover policemen. Hani also asserted that several people had been injured in the battle, but he could not confirm any deaths.

"There was a lull in the fighting Monday afternoon after police went to the interior ministry at around 5:30pm," he told Ahram Online. "At around 8pm we received reports that civilians had begun shooting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

"At around 10pm we could hear machinegun and shotgun fire emanating from Noubar Street. Later we could see birdshot on the ground.

"On Noubar Street we saw fighting between two groups of civilians next to the wall recently erected by Central Security Forces. There were protesters who remained in the area and passersby who supported them against the attacks.

"There were dozens of them using shotguns and pistols. And, although we couldn’t see a machine gun, we could hear one. It sounded like live rounds. There were about 60 or 70 of us on the frontline; we were throwing rocks at them.

"Many people suffered injuries from birdshot. I saw people take birdshot in the face and all over their bodies. I personally didn't see anyone wounded with live ammunition, although some people said someone had been shot between the eyes with live ammo.

"People were saying the attackers were residents of [the nearby district of] Abdeen. But we have many friends from Abdeen who said that the people in question were not from their neighbourhood and who were convinced they were undercover policemen from the Abdeen police station."

Hani, for his part, who had suffered shotgun injuries to the back two days earlier, did not rule out the possibility that the armed attackers had indeed been undercover policemen. 

Many believe the interior ministry, especially during the Mubarak era, would hire thugs or deploy plainclothes police to deal with protesters.

"They were just shooting at us. We have no idea why they turned up. They looked like police in plainclothes because of the way they fired at us with steady legs; the way they were so aggressive; the way they were not afraid," Hani said.

"This went on for hours – it was still going on into the early hours of Tuesday morning.  It was ridiculous since it was seemingly between civilians. It looks as though Egypt's security forces are trying to encourage a war between civilians.

"It fits in with what Hussein Tantawi [head of Egypt’s ruling military council] said …Tantawi himself asked the public to hit the streets and stop the protesters, effectively encouraging this kind of violence."

In the wake of last week’s Port Said massacre, Tantawi urged citizens to stand against lawbreakers, in a statement that many critics saw as incitement to violence. "This kind of civilian-on-civilian hostility has gradually escalated over the last five days," Hani added.

So far, at least 10 protesters have been killed in Cairo, five in Suez, and hundreds injured since the clashes started on Thursday.

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