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Obama condemns Egypt over violence, cancels joint military exercise

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CAIRO – The death toll topped 600 Thursday in Egypt in the wake of a violent crackdown on supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi that has drawn widespread condemnation from world leaders, including a call from President Obama to cancel a month-long state of emergency.

Obama strongly condemned Egypt’s interim government, saying the United States was canceling a planned joint military operation in protest over bloody clashes that left at least 638 dead and thousands injured.

Responding to Obama's statements, Egypt's presidency said in a statement the president's words were not based on "facts" and will strengthen and encourage violent groups. 

It said Egypt was facing "terrorist acts" in reference to recent attacks on churches and government buildings that the presidency blames on Morsi supporters. 

Obama called on Egypt’s interim government, which took power after the July 3 military ouster of Morsi, to cancel a month-long state of emergency imposed after Wednesday's bloodshed.

"We deplore violence against civilians," he told reporters in Martha's Vineyard, where he is on a working vacation.

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“Let me say that the Egyptian people deserve better than what we've seen over the last several days,” Obama said. “And to the Egyptian people, let me say the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop.”

“America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That’s a task for the Egyptian people. We don’t take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it’s tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what’s gone wrong,” the president said on Thursday.

“We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That’s our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.”

His plea did not immediately appear to be heeded in Cairo, where Egypt's interior ministry said it had authorized security forces to fire at any Morsi supporters who were involved in attacks on churches or government buildings.

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Obama said Operation Bright Star – a joint biennial military exercise that had been due to take place in the Sinai region next month - would now not happen, and hinted further steps could be taken. It follows the decision last month to halt a planned delivery of F-16 fighter jets.

"While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back," he said.

The State Department also said it would review aid to Egypt "in all forms."

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council urged all parties to end the violence and exercise maximum restraint in the ongoing protests. 

"The view of council members is that it is important to end violence in Egypt and that the parties exercise maximum restraint," Argentine U.N. Ambassador Maria Cristina Perceval told reporters after the 15-member council met on the situation. 

Egypt's security forces - backed by bulldozers - cleared two Cairo sit-in camps protesting the military's removal of the country's democratically elected leader. Seven Egyptian soldiers were among those killed on Thursday, security sources said, after an attack on a military checkpoint in the coastal city of Arish in North Sinai.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called Egyptian Minister of Defense Abel Fattah al-Sisi on Thursday, he said in a statement. Hagel told the top Egyptian officer that the continuing degeneration of the situation in Egypt was putting the defense department’s longstanding relationship with the country at risk.

In a blow to Morsi supporters, Obama on Thursday did not call for a change in leadership in Egypt, saying: "That's a task for the Egyptian people."

He characterized the July 3 power shift - regarded by many as a coup - as a "chance for reconciliation" that had been squandered by the interim government. 

"We’ve seen a more dangerous path taken, through arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi's associations and supporters and now, tragically, violence that's taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more,” Obama said.

The violent clearance of the camps triggered a backlash around Egypt, prompting the interim government to declare a month-long state of emergency and impose a night-time curfew.

It also sparked the resignation of Nobel Peace Prize winner and interim government minister Mohamed ElBaradei.

Egypt's health ministry announced Thursday that the death toll from subsequent clashes reached 638, with 3,572 others injured. Activists said the true death toll was much higher. 

Hundreds of angry Morsi supporters attacked and set fire to the offices of the governor of Cairo's Giza district at about 2 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET) Thursday. They threw Molotov cocktails and fired live ammunition into the building as government workers fled, according to security sources.

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The Muslim Brotherhood also announced plans to hold a march in Cairo, and pledged to bring down the interim government.

“We will rise and rise again until we push the military back into the barracks and restore democracy,” Gehad El-Haddad, spokesman for the Islamist organization, said on his Twitter feed.

“We will not bow down, we will not cower,” said El-Haddad, adding that the security forces had shown “unbelievable brutality.”

In a troubling indication of the increasingly sectarian nature of Egypt's divisions, Reuters cited state media and security sources as saying that a number of churches had been attacked across Egypt.

Churches were attacked in the Nile Valley towns of Minya, Sohag and Assiut, where Christians escaped across the roof into a neighboring building after a mob surrounded and hurled bricks at their place of worship, state news agency MENA said. 

Authorities referred 84 people from the city of Suez, including Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, to military prosecutors on Thursday on charges of murder and burning churches, the state news agency reported.

As Egypt awoke to the first full day of its month-long state of emergency, Cairo appeared calm.

Traffic flowed through the former site of the Rabaa camp, and many Egyptians expressed support for the army in removing the protest camps. Passing drivers were beeping their horns, shouting “Long live Egypt” and slowing to shake hands with soldiers guarding the scorched area.

“I support the army,” said Mohamed, a student. “Now we are free, finally.”

A woman called Isra said: “What happened [on July 3] is not a coup, it is a people’s revolution. I support anyone who supported us to get rid of the terrorism we saw in the streets in the past year.”

But while the streets were quiet, activists rallied online – using social media to collate pictures and first-hand accounts of Wednesday’s violence at the Rabaa and Nahda camps.

Images of bodies piled high in mosques and other makeshift morgues were posted on Twitter, while on Facebook one activist set up a gruesome gallery showing victims of the violence.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry also posted pictures - of the 13 policemen killed by pro-Morsi protesters who fought back during the camp clearances.

El-Haddad said the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies had suffered a "very strong blow" in Wednesday's crackdown, and that the whereabouts of all its key leaders could not be ascertained.

Morsi himself has been held at an undisclosed location, and faces charges – brought by the security forces – that he colluded with Palestinian militants.

His detention was extended Thursday for another 30 days.

NBC News' Charlene Gubash, Jim Miklaszewski, Courtney Kube, Becky Bratu and Matthew DeLuca and Reuters contributed to this report.

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