CAIRO — The battle between allies and foes of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak entered a second day Thursday when supporters of the beleaguered leader opened fire on anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, killing at least one, witnesses said.
The heavy gunfire came hours after Mubarak supporters charged into Cairo's central square on horses and camels brandishing whips while others rained firebombs from rooftops. It appeared to be an orchestrated assault against protesters trying to topple Egypt's leader of 30 years. At least three people died and more than 600 were injured on Wednesday.
The protesters accused Mubarak's regime of unleashing a force of paid thugs and plainclothes police to crush their unprecedented nine-day-old movement, a day after the 82-year-old president refused to step down. They showed off police ID badges they said were wrested from their attackers. Some government workers said their employers ordered them into the streets.
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A doctor quoted on Al Arabiya television said that Mubarak supporters opened fire early Thursday in Tahrir Square, killing at least one person. Protest organizer Mustafa al-Naggar said he had seen three bodies.
NBC News' Brian Williams and Richard Engel, reporting live on msnbc's "The Rachel Maddow Show" early Thursday from a balcony overlooking Tahrir Square, described frequent gunfire around the square and the smell of tear gas.
Army tanks laid down smoke screens between the sides.
One protester was caught in a firebomb and rolled in an attempt to put out the flames. It was unclear whose side the person was on.
As they watched, a man was dragged from a passing truck and severely beaten. The two sides battled for an overpass overlooking the square with rocks and firebombs.
Williams described tracer rounds being fired into a nearby building.
Mustafa el-Fiqqi, a top official from the ruling National Democratic Party, told The Associated Press that businessmen connected to the ruling party were responsible for the clashes earlier in the day. But Egypt's Interior Ministry earlier denied accusations by anti-government protesters that plainclothes police were involved.
The notion that the state may have coordinated violence against protesters, who had kept a peaceful vigil in Tahrir Square for five days, prompted a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration.
"If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
The clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt's upheaval: the first significant violence between government supporters and opponents. The crisis took a sharp turn for the worse almost immediately after Mubarak rejected the calls for him to give up power or leave the country, stubbornly proclaiming he would die on Egyptian soil.
"After our revolution, they want to send people here to ruin it for us," said Ahmed Abdullah, a 47-year-old lawyer in the square. "Why do they want us to be at each other's throats, with the whole world watching us?"
Dr. Mona Mina, a physician at an emergency clinic set up at the scene, told Reuters more than 1,500 people were injured.
Dr. Hatem Aly, with the Gamaet Ein al-Shams hospital in Cairo, said the majority of the wounded were anti-Mubarak protesters. He said the injuries ranged from minor cuts and bruises to serious, life-threatening wounds. Some suffered burns from exploding Molotov cocktails; others were stabbed by knives or swords used by pro-Mubarak protesters, he said.
Several foreign journalists were among the wounded, according to media reports.
The scenes of mayhem were certain to add to the fear that is already running high in this capital of 18 million people after a weekend of looting and lawlessness and the escape of thousands of prisoners from jails in the chaos.
The military, which has stayed on the sidelines during a week of mostly peaceful protests, repeatedly broadcast a message on state television Wednesday night warning people to evacuate, saying that “violent groups” intended to burn down the square, Al-Jazeera English reported.
Egypt's newly appointed vice president, former intelligence chief and army officer Omar Suleiman, urged protesters on both sides to go home.
"The participants in these demonstrations had conveyed their message, both those demanding reform and those who came out in support of President Hosni Mubarak," he said, according to the MENA state news agency.
Suleiman urged "all citizens to return to their homes and abide by the curfew to boost the authorities' efforts in restoring calm and stability and limit the damage and losses the demonstrations had caused Egypt since they erupted last week."
After dark the protesters barricaded the square against groups of pro-Mubarak supporters who appeared to be trying to penetrate the makeshift cordon. There was sporadic gunfire, with blazes caused by firebombs, and the atmosphere was tense.
Fires were burning near the famed Egyptian Museum and at a residential building, and NBC's Engel said he saw "flaming bombs" being dropped from buildings.
The clashes erupted the day after Mubarak went on national television and said he would not seek another term but rejected protesters' demands he step down immediately.
Some of the worst street battles raged near the famed Egyptian Museum at the edge of the square. Pro-government rioters blanketed the rooftops of nearby buildings and hurled bricks and firebombs onto the crowd below — in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum grounds. Plainclothes police at the building entrances prevented anti-Mubarak protesters from storming up to stop them.
The two sides pummeled each other with chunks of concrete and bottles at each of the six entrances to the sprawling plaza, where the 10,000 anti-Mubarak protesters tried to fend off the more than 3,000 attackers who besieged them. Some on the pro-government side waved machetes, while the square's defenders filled the air with a ringing battlefield din by banging metal fences with sticks.
In one almost medieval scene, a contingent of pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels rushed into the anti-Mubarak crowds, trampling several and swinging whips and sticks. Protesters dragged some from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels appeared to be ones used by the many promoters around Cairo who sell rides for tourists.
Dozens of men and women pried up the pieces of the pavement with bars and ferried the piles of ammunition in canvas sheets to their allies at the front. Others directed fighters to streets needing reinforcements. Entrances to a subway station under the square were turned into impromptu prisons, with seized attackers tied up and held at the bottom of the stairs.
Some protesters wept and prayed in the square where only a day before they had held a joyous, peaceful rally of a quarter-million, the largest demonstration so far.
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"We saw rocks flying in all directions … it was total mayhem," an Al-Jazeera correspondent in the area of Tahrir Square told the TV station. She said there was a "complete stampede" and that she saw people being trampled.
Another Al-Jazeera correspondent in the square said the "crazed cavalry charge" had entered the square alongside pro-Mubarak protesters and ran "straight at a wall of people." A cameraman was trampled, he said. Live video showed protesters on top of the buildings bordering Tahrir Square throwing debris.
Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based Arabic-language TV news channel, reported one of its correspondents was missing after being confronted by pro-Mubarak reporters.
CNN's Anderson Cooper said he and his production crew were kicked and punched by pro-Mubarak demonstrators. Cooper said no one was seriously hurt.
The Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet said two of its reporters were attacked and held for several hours by Egyptian soldiers who accused them of being spies for Israel.
The public emergence of Mubarak loyalists, whether ordinary citizens or police, thrust a new dynamic into the momentous events in this most populous Arab nation of 80 million people.
The anti-government uprising broke out Jan. 25 as public frustration with corruption, oppression and economic hardship under Mubarak boiled over.
Rep. Sen. John McCain said Mubarak should go. "Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down & relinquish power. It's in the best interest of Egypt, its people & its mility," he tweeted.
In his 10-minute speech Tuesday night, Mubarak insisted that even if the protests had not broken out, he would not have sought a sixth term in September. But he did not accede to protesters' demand that he step down immediately.
Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for nearly three decades, said he would serve out the rest of his term working "to accomplish the necessary steps for the peaceful transfer of power." He said he will carry out amendments to rules on presidential elections.
Egypt's stock exchange and many of its banks and businesses have been closed due to the turmoil, and thousands of foreigners have been evacuated from the county.
NBC News, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.