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'Deeply concerned': US frets as deadly Egypt clashes enter fourth day

The United States said it was worried by violence in Egypt and urged the army rulers to respect human rights on Monday.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The United States said it was worried by violence in Egypt and urged the army rulers to respect human rights Monday as security forces wielding batons and firing tear gas fought with protesters demanding an end to military rule for a fourth day.

Egypt's Health Ministry said Monday that at least three more protesters had been killed in clashes with army soldiers in central Cairo, bringing the four-day death toll to at least 14.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned excessive use of force by security forces in Cairo protests that have widened a rift among Egyptians over the role of the army and cast a shadow over the country's first free election in decades.

Ban "is highly alarmed by the excessive use of force employed by the security forces against protesters, and calls for the transitional authorities to act with restraint and uphold human rights, including the right to peaceful protest," .

Police and soldiers using batons drove stone-throwing protesters out of Cairo's Tahrir Square, hub of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February, late Sunday but by dawn they had trickled back into the square. Security forces took up positions again behind barricades in nearby streets.

Protester had fled down sidestreets, away from sensitive areas where parliament, the cabinet offices and Interior Ministry are located. Security forces used tear gas in nearby streets to drive protesters away.

The violence broke out just after the second stage of a six-week election for Egypt's new parliament that starts the slow countdown to the army's return to barracks. The military has pledged to hand power to an elected president by July.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "deeply concerned" about the violence and urged the security forces "to respect and protect the universal rights of all Egyptians."

In a statement to a nation which has received billions of dollars in U.S. military and other aid, she also called on protesters "to refrain from acts of violence."

Many Egyptians want to focus on building democratic institutions, not street activism, but have nevertheless been shocked by the tactics of security forces in and around Tahrir that have killed at least 14 people and wounded hundreds.

Soldiers in riot gear have been filmed beating protesters with batons even after they have fallen to the ground. A Reuters picture showed two policemen dragging a woman lying on the street by the shirt, exposing her underwear.

Protesters said they had seized four soldiers who had been part of formations who launched a charge in the early hours.

"We quickly got the four into vehicles and drove them away from the square, otherwise they would have been beaten to a pulp by angry protesters who experienced the army's vicious attacks," said Sayyid Abu Ella, speaking by telephone from Tahrir.

Late on Sunday, protesters had hurled petrol bombs at lines of security forces and chanted "Down with Tantawi" a reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi who heads the army council and was Mubarak's defence minister.

Overshadowing elections
The violence has overshadowed a staggered parliamentary election that is set to give Islamists the biggest bloc.

The West, which long looked to strongmen in the region like Mubarak to keep a lid on Islamists, have watched warily as Islamist parties swept elections in Morocco, Tunisia and now Egypt.

A hard core of activists have camped in Tahrir since a protest against army rule on Nov. 18 that was sparked by the army-backed cabinet's proposals to permanently shield the military from civilian oversight in the new constitution.

Tough police and army tactics combined with hot-headed youths bent on keeping up pressure also sparked a flare-up last month that killed 42 people.

A small group of activists approached protesters hurling stones on Sunday and called on them to stop, but they refused, citing the deaths of 10 people as a reason not to "negotiate".

Other activists handed over to the army people they said were making Molotov cocktails.

The violence has deepened the frustration of many ordinary Egyptians, who want an end to months of unrest that has left the economy in tatters.

"There are people who wait for any problem and seek to amplify it ... The clashes won't stop. There are street children who found shelter in Tahrir," said Ali el-Nubi, a postal worker, adding the army should have managed the transition better.

The Health Ministry said on Sunday that 10 people had been killed in the violence since Friday and 505 injured, of whom 384 had been taken to hospital.

The latest bloodshed began after the second round of voting last week for parliament's lower house. The staggered election began on Nov. 28 and will end with a run-off vote on Jan. 11.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties repressed in the 30-year Mubarak era have emerged as strong front-runners.