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Protesters fill Tahrir Square for 'Day of Departure' rally; journalists targeted

Protesters are again filling Cairo's Tahrir Square in what is expected to be the climax of the recent anti-Mubarak movement. Elizabeth Palmer reports from a nearby hotel overlooking the Tahrir Square.

The effort by Egypt to turn the focus on what it regards as its critics came as violence continued to flare in and around Tahrir Square. Some anti-government protesters had converted the offices of a travel agency into a makeshift detention center, where they were keeping captured Mubarak supporters.

Among their captives Thursday morning were two burly men who were stripped to the waist and seated on the floor; their captors said they had been caught with identification cards of the police or the ruling National Democratic Party. One of those detained yipped in pain as the protesters yanked upward on his arms, which were secured by plastic handcuffs.

"Drama queen," one of the captors said. The captors said the prisoners would be turned over to the military once their identities were established.

"Our issue is simple: freedom and social justice," said Hamad Othman Edeep, a 31-year-old teacher who was among those still encamped in the downtown square. He said he makes just under $100 a month, while Egypt's rich grow ever wealthier. "How can I feed my children? Do I have to be a thief?"

As the Egyptian unrest continued, U.S. officials were studying the components of the $1.5 billion annual U.S. aid package to Egypt, and the possibility that it could be used as leverage with the government. But most of the aid - $1.3 billion - is in the form of credits to purchase U.S. military equipment. Any cutoff would not only affect U.S. business but risk offending the Egyptian army, which the administration has praised for its nonpolitical conduct during the crisis.

Suleiman said that Mubarak's son Gamal, who had been considered a likely successor, would not be a candidate to succeed his father. The vice president also said he had begun holding talks with a variety of opposition figures in order to reach consensus on reforms and had invited the banned Muslim Brotherhood to join in. But he insisted that it would take time to get the reforms right.

He thanked the young people who launched the protests here last week, but he said their demand that Mubarak leave office before elections eight months from now was unreasonable.

Shafiq, the newly appointed prime minister, apologized for the violence of the past two days. Both he and Suleiman maintained that the government had nothing to do with the clashes, which began when supporters of the president poured into the center of Cairo on buses and launched an attack on Tahrir Square with a cavalry charge.

The Health Ministry said Thursday that eight people had been killed and more than 800 wounded in the two days of fighting.

"I don't understand what has happened," Shafiq said. "This is not the nature of the Egyptian people."

"We need to know who was behind" the violent attacks at Tahrir Square, Suleiman said. "We will know. And they will be judged accordingly. Those people have actually spoiled and undermined President Mubarak's work."

Human Rights Watch said one of its American staffers, Daniel Williams, a former journalist who worked for The Post and other news organizations, was among several rights workers taken into custody when police and army personnel raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center.

Egyptian activists saw the targeting of the law center as evidence of a carefully planned attempt to weaken and discredit the pro-democracy movement. The center provides legal representation for a wide range of dissidents and political prisoners, and its lawyers were expected to help defend opposition figures who have been detained during unrest in the last two weeks.

Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the presence of foreigners at the offices of Egyptian human rights groups reinforces the view that Westerners are "collaborating against the government of Egypt."

Wilgoren reported from Washington. Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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