5 fatally shot in 2nd day of bloody clashes; amid outcry, Egyptian PM apologizes

Anti-government protesters in Egypt weathered a night of clashes and thousands remain camped out in Cairo's main square Thursday. The military took up positions in the streets between supporters and opponents of President Hosni Mubarak. (Feb. 3)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 8:13 AM

CAIRO - At least five anti-government protesters were shot dead in Tahrir Square early Thursday and hundreds more were injured, demonstrators said, as the bloody clashes between demonstrators and government loyalists continued for a second day.

With rights groups and key allies condemning Wednesday's attacks on protesters, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq offered a highly unusual apology on state television. "I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it's neither logical nor rational," Shafiq said, according to the Associated Press. Shafiq called the attack a "blatant mistake" and promised to investigate "so everyone knows who was behind it."

But Reuters quoted a cabinet spokesman denying any government effort to mobilize supporters of President Hosni Mubarak against the protesters. "We were surprised with all these actions," spokesman Magdy Rady told the wire service. "To accuse the government of mobilizing this is a real fiction. That would defeat our object of restoring the calm."

And there was more bloodshed Thursday. Protest organizers said Mubarak loyalists opened fire on demonstrators before dawn. Sporadic clashes continued through the morning, though for the most part the pro- and anti-government groups kept their distance from each other, often on opposite sides of a line of military vehicles or personnel.

Refusing government requests for them to end their 10-day old demonstration, protesters set up makeshift hospitals in alleyways off the square to treat the wounded, and fashioned a holding cell in a nearby travel office to detain those they suspected of inciting the violence.

Organizers said they had captured more than 350 "thugs of the government" among the pro-government demonstrators, some carrying police identification cards, and turned them over to the Egyptian army.

"Mubarak told them to kill us," said Osama Hilal, 27, a doctor who was treating the wounded at a makeshift triage center. "He thinks he can succeed to make all the people get out of this square. But we will not leave."

Human Rights Watch condemned the Egyptian government for what it called "organized attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators" Wednesday and asked that those responsible be prosecuted.

"The events in Tahrir Square and elsewhere strongly suggest government involvement in violence against peaceful protesters," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the watchdog group. "The U.S. and other allies should make clear that further abuse will come at a very high price."

Also Thursday, the United Nations announced that it was evacuating 350 staffers from Egypt, as protesters vowed to continue efforts to oust Mubarak. And Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement calling on Mubarak "to avoid at all costs the use of violence against unarmed civilians, and on the demonstrators to exercise their rights peacefully."

In Washington Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the violence "outrageous and deplorable" and warned that if any of it was "instigated by the government, it should stop immediately."

The violence came after the army had urged pro-democracy demonstrators to go home early Wednesday, saying Mubarak's pledge the previous night to hand over power this fall showed that their voices had been heard. The coordinated nature of Wednesday's events suggested that his supporters were determined to show, as Mubarak had warned, that the country faced a "choice between chaos and stability."

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