CAIRO — Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers swept into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday, chasing protesters and beating them to the ground with sticks and tossing journalists' TV cameras off of balconies in the second day of a violent crackdown on antimilitary protesters that has left nine dead and hundreds injured.
The violent, chaotic scenes suggested that the military — fresh after the first rounds of parliament elections that it claimed bolstered its status as the country's rulers — was now determined to stamp out protests by activists demanding it transfer power immediately to civilians.
TV footage, pictures and eyewitnesses accounts showed a new level of force being used by the military against pro-democracy activists the past two days. Military police openly beat women protesters in the street, slapped elders on the face, and pulled the shirt off of at least one veiled woman as she struggled on the pavement. Witnesses said they beat and gave electric shocks to men and women dragged into detention, many of them held in the nearby parliament or Cabinet buildings, witnesses said.
State media reported at least nine people had been killed, of whom most appeared to have died on Friday or in the early hours of Saturday. Of 361 people wounded, 200 were taken to hospital.
The army-appointed prime minister, 78-year-old Kamal al-Ganzouri said 30 security guards outside parliament had been hurt and 18 people had gunshot wounds.
Protesters fled into side streets to escape the troops in riot gear, who grabbed people and battered them repeatedly even after they had been beaten to the ground, a Reuters journalist said. Shots were fired in the air.
Aya Emad, a 24-year-old protester, had a broken nose, her arm in a sling, her other arm bruised. She told Associated Press that troops dragged her by her headscarf and hair into the Cabinet headquarters. She said soldiers kicked her on the ground, an officer shocked her with an electrical prod and another slapped her on the face.
Ten months after a popular revolt toppled President Hosni Mubarak, tensions are running high. The army generals who replaced him have angered some Egyptians by seeming reluctant to give up power. Others back the military as a force for badly needed stability during a difficult transition to democracy.
The army assault on Saturday followed skirmishes between protesters and troops during which a fire destroyed archives, some more than 200 years old, in a building next to Tahrir.
An army official said troops targeted thugs, not protesters, after shots were fired at soldiers and petrol bombs set the archive building ablaze, the state news agency MENA reported.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement it was concerned by the violent incidents at Tahrir and condemned the "excessive use of force" against protesters in Cairo, which cost the lives of several people.
The bloodshed follows unrest in which 42 people were killed in the week before November 28, the start of a phased parliamentary poll that is empowering Islamist parties repressed during the 30-year Mubarak era, when elections were routinely rigged.
Voting in the second round of a drawn-out election process seen as part of a promised transition from army to civilian rule by July passed off peacefully on Wednesday and Thursday. The last run-off vote for the lower house will take place on January 11.
Friday's clashes pitted thousands of demonstrators against soldiers and plainclothes men who were seen at one point hurling rocks from the roof of a parliament building.
Army vehicles and soldiers were deployed at roads leading into Tahrir Square, the hub of the anti-Mubarak uprising, on Saturday evening. Some protesters and troops threw rocks at each other. Protesters also lobbed petrol bombs at army lines.
Troops had set up a barrier blocking the road that leads from the square to the parliament building. But cars were passing through other roads entering Tahrir.
Prime minister Ganzouri blamed the violence on youths among the protesters. "What is happening in the streets today is not a revolution, rather it is an attack on the revolution," he said in a televised statement.
Tahrir protesters and some other Egyptians are infuriated by the army's perceived reluctance to quit power, focusing their wrath on Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the army council, who was Mubarak's defence minister for two decades.
"This is happening because Tantawi is dirty and he is ruling the country the same way Hosni ruled it," said a taxi driver.
But other Egyptians, desperate for order, voiced frustration about the unrest that has battered the economy.
"We can't work, we can't live, and because of what? Because of some thugs who have taken control of the square and destroyed our lives. Those are no revolutionaries," said Mohamed Abdel Halim, a 21-year-old who runs a store near Tahrir.
What sparked violence?
State media gave conflicting accounts of what sparked the violence. They quoted some people as saying a man went into the parliament compound to retrieve a mis-kicked football, but was harassed and beaten by police and guards. Others said the man had prompted scuffles by trying to set up camp in the compound.
Among the dead was Emad Effat, a senior official of Egypt's Dar al-Ifta, a religious authority that issues Islamic fatwas (edicts). His wife, Nashwa Abdel-Fattah, told Reuters Effat died from a gunshot wound. At his funeral on Saturday, hundreds of mourners chanted "Down with military rule."
"The firing wasn't just from above, there were people on the ground. The bullet hit him under his shoulder in a diagonal way from right to left," she said, adding she did not know who fired the shot.
A new civilian advisory council set up to offer policy guidance to the generals said it would suspend its meetings until the violence stopped. It called for prosecution of those responsible and asked the army to release all those detained in the unrest. One council member announced he was quitting.
Islamist and liberal politicians decried the army's tactics.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose party list is leading the election, said in a statement the military must make "a clear and quick apology for the crime that has been committed."
In a statement carried by the state news agency, the army council "expressed its regret about events" on Friday, but it stopped short of an apology.
Pro-democracy activists have accused the army of trying to clear a sit-in outside the cabinet office that a small number of protesters has maintained since the November violence.
The army council is in charge until a presidential election in June, but parliament will have a popular mandate that the military will find hard to ignore as it oversees the transition.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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