Supporters of President Hosni Mubarak opened fire on protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square killing four people and wounding 13, witnesses and television said.
It was the biggest spike in violence since protesters angered by oppression and hardship launched an unprecedented challenge to Mubarak’s 30-year-rule 10 days ago. Many accused the government of backing the pro-Mubarak supporters.
Mubarak said on Tuesday he would step down in September, angering protesters who want him to quit immediately and prompting the United States to say change “must begin now”.
Al Arabiya television quoted a doctor at the scene as saying four people had been killed and 13 were wounded in the overnight violence in Tahrir Square which began around 4 am (0200 GMT) on Thursday, and which was shown live on television, Reuters reports.
“It’s really a battlefield,” a witness who gave her name as Mona told al Jazeera. But she said the protesters would not give up. “We are not leaving this place until Mubarak leaves.”
After more than an hour of intense firing, television stations showed live footage of two bodies being pulled from the scene, while Mubarak supporters and protesters hurled stones at each other. Black smoke billowed over the area.
Shortly before dawn, television footage showed army vehicles being deployed among protesters. But fighting continued between protesters and pro-Mubarak supporters.
After Mubarak said in a nationally televised address on Tuesday that he would step down in September, the army told protesters to go home.
But with many saying they would not call off their protests until the 82-year-old president quit, Mubarak backers, throwing petrol bombs, wielding sticks and charging on camels and horses, attacked protesters in Tahrir Square on Wednesday.
Anti-Mubarak demonstrators said the attackers were police in plainclothes. The Interior Ministry denied the accusation, and the government rejected international calls to end violence and begin the transfer of power.
This apparent rebuff along with the spike in violence — after days of relatively calm demonstrations — complicated U.S. calculations for an orderly transition of power in Egypt.
In pointed comments, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday it was clear that “somebody loyal to Mubarak has unleashed these guys to try to intimidate the protesters”.
PROTESTERS SAY THEY WON’T LEAVE
By nightfall on Wednesday, the protesters were still holding their ground in Tahrir Square. Skirmishes continued into the night, with blazes caused by firebombs.
After a brief period of calm, a barrage of gunfire could be heard ringing out for more than an hour.
“They fired at us many petrol bombs from above the bridge in the northern end of Tahrir Square,” said one witness.
Despite the violence, protesters said they would not give up. “We cannot go back at this point,” a 33-year-old woman in the square told al Jazeera.
An estimated 150 people have been killed so far and there have been protests across the country. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said up to 300 people may have died.
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman on Wednesday urged the 2,000 demonstrators in Tahrir Square to leave and observe a curfew to restore calm. He said the start of dialogue with the reformists and opposition depended on an end to street protests.
Officials said three people were killed in Wednesday’s violence and a doctor at the scene said over 1,500 were injured.
Reacting to the tumult in Egypt, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday that, “If any of the violence is instigated by the government it should stop immediately.”
OPPOSITION REJECTS TALKS
Opposition figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate, called on the army to intervene to stop the violence.
Khalil, a man in his 60s, blamed Mubarak supporters and undercover security men for the clashes. “We will not leave,” he told Reuters on Wednesday. “Everybody stay put,” he added.
“I will stay with my brothers and sisters in Tahrir until I either die or Mubarak leaves the country,” said medical student Shaaban Metwalli, 22, as night closed in on Wednesday.
An opposition coalition, which includes the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, said it would only negotiate with Suleiman, a former intelligence chief appointed by Mubarak at the weekend, once the president stepped down.
The crisis has alarmed the United States and other Western governments who have regarded Mubarak as a bulwark of stability in a volatile region, and has raised the prospect of unrest spreading to other authoritarian Arab states.
President Barack Obama telephoned the 82-year-old Mubarak on Tuesday to urge him to move faster on political transition.
“The message that the president delivered clearly to President Mubarak was that the time for change has come,” Gibbs said, adding: “Now means now.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a call to Suleiman, underlined that U.S. position.
But Mubarak dug in his heels on Wednesday. A Foreign Ministry statement rejected U.S. and European calls for the transition to start immediately, saying they aimed to “incite the internal situation” in Egypt.
“This appears to be a clear rebuff to the Obama administration and to the international community’s efforts to try to help manage a peaceful transition from Mubarak to a new, democratic Egypt,” said Robert Danin, a former senior U.S. official now at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
The administration supplies the Egyptian army annually with about $1.3 billion in aid. But international backing for Mubarak, a stalwart of the West’s Middle East policy, a key player in the Middle East peace process and defence against militant Islam, crumbled as he tried to ride out the crisis.
France, Germany and Britain also urged a speedy transition.
Some of the few words of encouragement for him have come from oil giant Saudi Arabia, a country seen by some analysts as vulnerable to a similar outbreak of discontent.
Israel, which signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, is also watching the situation in its western neighbour nervously.
At the weekend, Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet and promised reform but that was not enough for the pro-democracy movement.