Cairo's Tahrir Square tense after night of deadly gunfire

Image: Clashes outside the National Museum in Cairo
Pro-government protesters at left clash with anti-government protesters outside the National Museum near Tahrir Square in Cairo early Thursday. Opponents and supporters of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak fought with fists, stones and clubs in Cairo. Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

Anti-government protesters continued to face off against supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Thursday morning after a night of heavy gunfire resounding around Cairo's Tahrir Square left at least three dead, according to reports from the nation's capital.

While gunfire settled down shortly after dawn, demonstrators continued throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at each other over makeshift shields set up across the square.

Egypt's health minister said Thursday morning that five people were killed in violence overnight in Tahrir Square, sparked when supporters of Mubarak charged anti-government protesters.

"Most of the casualties were the result of stone throwing and attacks with metal rods and sticks," Health Minister Ahmed Samih Farid told state television by phone.

"The real real casualties taken to hospital were 836, of which 86 are still in hospital and there are five dead," he said.

Automatic weapons fire and powerful single shots erupted around 4 a.m. local time (9 p.m. ET Wednesday) and continued for more than two hours.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters and Mubarak supporters were reportedly making their way to Tahrir Square for the 10th day of demonstrations and setting up the potential for more violent clashes Thursday morning.

The Egyptian army detained some protesters, but it was not sure from which side they came, Al Arabiya television reported without giving numbers.

Late Wednesday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement telling any Americans remaining in Egypt who wish to leave on a government flight to "report to airport immediately" after curfew and that "further delay is not advisable." It said government flights after Thursday "are unlikely."

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.

"It's really a battlefield," a witness who gave her name as Mona told Al-Jazeera. She said she saw a protester shot in the head. But she said the protesters would not give up. "We are not leaving this place until Mubarak leaves."

NBC News' Brian Williams and Richard Engel, reporting live on msnbc's "The Rachel Maddow Show" and "The Ed Show" from a balcony overlooking Tahrir Square, described frequent gunfire around the square and the smell of tear gas early Thursday.

They described anti-government protesters and Mubarak supporters chasing and battling each other on the October Bridge and the periphery of Tahrir Square.

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.

Engel described the scene as 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 before dispersing and then regrouping.

Williams reported that tracer rounds were fired into a nearby building.

As dawn neared, the sound of gunfire diminished.

Paid thugs, plainclothes police
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.

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.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Vice President Omar Suleiman to urge that the Egyptian hold accountable those who were responsible for violent acts," the State Department said in a statement.

"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.

Journalists beaten, injured Several foreign journalists were among the wounded, according to media reports.

Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based Arabic-language TV news channel, reported one of its correspondents went missing after being confronted by pro-Mubarak supporters and was found later in a hospital severely beaten.

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.

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.

Supporters of President Hosni Mubarak, including some riding horses and camels and wielding whips, march towards anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Feb.2, 2011. Several thousand supporters of President Hosni Mubarak clashed with anti-government protesters Wednesday as Egypt's upheaval took a dangerous new turn. In chaotic scenes, the two sides pelted each other with stones, and protesters dragged attackers off their horses. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)Amr Nabil / AP

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.

Protesters 'have conveyed their message'
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.

Suleiman, a 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.

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.

The anti-government uprising broke out Jan. 25 as public frustration with corruption, oppression and economic hardship under Mubarak boiled over.

"Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down & relinquish power. It's in the best interest of Egypt, its people & its military," he tweeted.