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Clashes turn deadly as protesters defy military warning in Egypt

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Protesters, military clash in Egypt. Photo: CNN

Protesters, military clash in Egypt. Photo: CNN

CAIRO — Deadly clashes between supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsy and security forces erupted Friday across Egypt, pushing the country to the edge of chaos as the military-backed government struggled to gain control of the streets.

Thousands of protesters, primarily supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, defied a government-imposed curfew, staying put in Cairo’s Ramses Square and the streets, while military vehicles were deployed across Cairo and Giza, taking up positions in squares and near government institutions.

Nightfall threatened to increase tensions between the two sides as the military warned it would “deal firmly” with anyone who breaks the curfew, raising fears of a repeat of Wednesday’s military raids on pro-Morsy protest camps that left an estimated 580 dead and 4,000 wounded.

The clashes began Friday following afternoon prayers, when protesters demanding the return of Morsy took to the streets promising a day of rage.

At least 17 people were killed and more than 40 wounded in clashes in Cairo between Morsy supporters and security forces, state-run Nile TV reported.

In northern Egypt, at least 16 people were killed and 140 wounded in fighting between Morsy supporters and the military in Alexandria, Nile TV reported, citing medical officials. Fighting also erupted between Morsy supporters and residents in the northeast city of Ismailia during the curfew, the news channel reported.

The casualties have not been limited to Morsy supporters and security forces. A number of bystanders, residents and journalists have been killed as the violence has widened.

At least 263 people, described by armed members of the Muslim Brotherhood, have been arrested across the country, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Information.

A CNN crew witnessed men in plainclothes standing next to military tanks and firing into crowds. The crew also saw that some in the crowd were armed.

Earlier, security forces fired tear gas at a mass of people on a major bridge leading to the centrally located Ramses Square. Machine-gun fire was heard in central Cairo as a military helicopter flew overhead.

Elsewhere in Cairo, armed groups were reportedly firing from rooftops, attempting to down a military surveillance helicopter, state-run media reported, citing security sources.

Armed protesters also attacked a police station in central Cairo, killing the police chief, state-run EGYNews reported.

Since Wednesday, 52 police officers have been killed, state television reported. Earlier reports of 64 dead were incorrect. State TV also said 25 police stations and 10 churches have been attacked. The interim government has blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks.

“The struggle to overthrow this illegitimate regime is an obligation,” the Muslim Brotherhood said on its website Friday, while urging people to protest peacefully.

Echoes of violence

The violence echoed the upheaval that preceded the popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011. The military removed Mubarak after protests against his authoritarian rule, but not before an estimated 840 people were killed.

The generals yielded power to Morsy after elections, but the new president soon was accused of pursuing an Islamist agenda and excluding other factions from the government. The military ousted Morsy from office on July 3, a move that triggered massive protests among his supporters.

Morsy’s supporters say the deposed president wasn’t given a fair chance and that the military has returned to its authoritarian practices of the Mubarak era.

The government reinforced the comparison by imposing the month-long state of emergency, a favored tactic of Mubarak.

Morsy and key members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been detained.

The most senior Muslim Brotherhood leader still at large, Essam el-Erian, said Thursday the protests will continue until Morsy is returned to office.

“They can arrest me and 100 of us, but they can’t arrest every honorable citizen in Egypt,” el-Erian told CNN. “They can’t stop this glorious revolution.”

Military vehicles were deployed Friday across Cairo and Giza, taking up positions in squares and securing important institutions, EGYNews reported, citing security officials.

The news agency said the military increased checkpoints at all entrances to Cairo to prevent the smuggling of arms to protesters.

Police will use live ammunition to subdue any attack against police facilities, state media said.

Western alarm

The escalating violence has alarmed the West, where leaders have long looked to Egypt as a stabilizing force in the region.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a meeting next week of European Union foreign ministers to coordinate a response to the violence in Egypt.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, called the rising casualty toll “shocking.”

“Responsibility for this tragedy weighs heavily on the interim government, as well as on the wider political leadership in the country,” she said.

Egyptian authorities rejected criticism from U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders on Wednesday’s ferocious clashes, which left at least 580 people dead after security forces broke up huge sit-ins in Cairo, according to the Health Ministry.

Obama, who has resisted calls to cut off military aid to Egypt and label Morsy’s ouster a coup, on Thursday stressed the United States would not support one political faction over another. Even predominantly Muslim nations voiced displeasure, with Turkey recalling its ambassador in Egypt in light of the crisis, a Turkish foreign ministry representative said.

Churches, schools attacked

Dalia Ziada of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies said Thursday that her group had documented the burning of 29 churches and Coptic facilities across the country.

The Bible Society of Egypt said 15 churches and three Christian schools had been attacked, some set on fire.

Nile TV reported Morsy supporters attacked a church Thursday in Fayoum, southwest of Cairo.

At least 84 people, including Muslim Brotherhood members, have been referred to military prosecutors for charges including murder and the burning of churches, the EGYNews site reported.