Egyptian forces storm protest camps, leaving 235 dead

Nancy A. YoussefMcClatchy Tribune News Service,Amina Ismail

Egypt’s security forces stormed camps of protesters loyal to ousted President Mohammed Morsi on Wednesday, a wave of gunfire and tear gas that set off fighting throughout the country and left at least 235 dead and more than 2,001 injured.

By evening, bulldozers had move into the camps. The main site, a virtual city that had housed thousands in the Rabaa section of Cairo was set afire. The country was under a state of emergency.

“Rabaa is ashes,” said Jihad Khalid, 20, a protester who lost friends and was at the Rabaa field hospital when police arrived. “The police were letting women leave and arresting men. And then a police officer told me ‘Leave’ and I said ‘I am not leaving. He said, ‘You know I can kill you right now.’”

The Wednesday clashes once again threw the country into a state of upheaval.

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Nobel laureate and liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, who served as vice president of foreign affairs, resigned from the military-named government, saying he opposed the government crackdown on Morsi supporters.

“I cannot be responsible for one drop of blood,” ElBaradei said in a statement, adding he believed the government had other means to clear the sites, where Morsi supporters had conducted sit-ins for six weeks.

The government defended its actions, claiming its forces were attacked and then used only tear gas and not live ammunition. Mohammed Ibrahim, the Minister of Interior, said the “least amount of force” was used. He banned future sit-ins.

“This state of mayhem and insecurity has come to an end,” said Prime Minister Hizam el Biblawi, who praised police for what he called their restraint. “

As of early evening, Health Ministry officials said that 235 had been killed, including at least 43 police officers and soldiers, and more than 2,001 injured. Those numbers were expected to rise.

The moves were widely criticized in the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

"The United States strongly condemns the use of violence against protesters in Egypt," Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday from Martha’s Vineyard, where President Barack Obama was vacationing.

"We extend our condolences to the families of those who have been killed, and to the injured. We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint, and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens, just as we have urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully."

The government effort to clear the sites pitted armed forces against citizens with rocks and produced widespread carnage. Near the site of the larger sit-in in Rabaa, it was impossible to walk a few feet without seeing an injured man, hearing the wails of a grieving woman or smelling the punctuating stench of tear gas.

There were conflicting reports that the daughter of Muslim Brotherhood supreme leader Khairat al-Shater and her husband were killed in Rabaa.

Freedom and Justice Party leader Mohamed El Beltagy confirmed his daughter Asmaa, 17, was among those killed. Egyptian state television later reported that Beltagy was one of eight Muslim Brotherhood leaders arrested Wednesday, though Ibrahim denied that. The government already had arrested Shater.

Among those killed at Rabaa were at least two journalists, including Sky News cameraman Mick Deane, 61, a 15-year veteran of the British station. Several other journalists were arrested or threatened when they tried to cover the events.

In Rabaa, protesters had positioned cars as barricades. About 6 a.m., witnesses said, military and police vehicles began surrounding the several block site that included numbered tents, bathrooms and kitchens for the thousands living there. Around 7 a.m., forces threw tear gas into the crowds, said Mohammed el Nagger, 64, a carpenter who has been at the site since June 28. Residents started to run out of the tents, el Nagger said.

“Once the people went out into the open, they started shooting,” said el Nagger, who was struck in the ankle.

His son, Kamel, 35, described a horrific scene of people trying to help each other, his bandaged hand shaking as he recalled the incident.

“In front of my eyes I saw someone shot. Another man went to help him and he was shot too. They were lying on top of each other,” he said. “We cannot even move the dead outside.”

Ambulance workers told McClatchy they did not have permission to enter Rabaa, the far larger of the two protest sites. They had to enter by foot, limiting their rescue work. McClatchy reporters saw roughly 30 bodies piled up in a makeshift morgue at Rabaa field hospital, near the site of one of the sit-ins, with only a fan overhead to keep the bodies cool. Hospital officials said they had 10 more in another room in the same field hospital. Reporters saw other bodies outside the site as well.

As the clashes erupted, the Ministry of Interior urged protesters to use one exit point. But waiting for them there were local residents who vowed to beat up those leaving. Later, they created more avenues for protesters to leave.

At least 10 were killed at the second but much smaller sit-in site in Nahda, near Cairo University.

Bursts of tear gas and gunfire continued throughout the day. McClatchy reporters caught in the middle of fighting between protesters and police pleaded with an apartment doorman to let them inside the gate. Once there, reporters could hear the sound of nearby gunfire, screams of those hit and others breaking up bricks at a nearby construction site to use as rocks.

The violence spread throughout the nation as at least 21 churches were set ablaze, along with police stations nationwide.

With many roads blocked in what appeared to be an effort by the government to stop protesters from coming to the sit-in sites, supporters instead launched protests in their neighborhoods. In Faiyom, an impoverished governorate south of Cairo that was fiercely loyal to Morsi, at least 17 people died in clashes. Clashes also erupted in Ismailia in the Nile Delta, killing at least 15, and the restive Sinai.

Morsi supporters said at least one child was killed.

In other parts of Cairo, protesters overturned police vehicles and even turned one over a bridge, according to a widely distributed video of the incident.

The government declared a month-long state of emergency in 14 of the nation’s 27 provinces, effectively allowing security forces to clear the streets without public oversight. From 4 p.m., when it announced the state of emergency, till 7 p.m., when the curfew started, the security forces allowed some protesters to leave sit in sites and arrested nearly 600 others.

It was the third move against the camp at Rabaa. But the scale of violence sparked a debate about the government response to the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency a year ago, and his Islamists supporters. Last month, Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the minister of defense who announced Morsi’s ouster July 3, asked the public to take to the streets and give him the backing to address the sit-in.

While some decried that fellow Egyptians could treat one another with such brutality, others welcomed the clearing of the sit-in site, saying the carnage was necessary for Egypt to move forward.

“Your hearts are cold. These people are peaceful. We have to defend them,” one woman yelled to fellow passengers on the subway early morning.

“Stop watching the news!” replied another.

Efforts failed in the past month of negotiations, both by Egyptians and the international community. Neither side could agree on who would represent them, let alone the major divisive issues of the day.

Ahmed Tayab, sheikh of al Azhar, a revered institution of Sunni thought, condemned the violence and said he was unaware the security forces planned to clear the area.

Indeed, he was scheduled to lead negotiations between the Brotherhood and the government Wednesday even as he shared the stage with el-Sissi during the July 3 announcement.

At the field hospital, so many bodies came in so quickly, it was clear there was not room for them. “Sha-heed!” or Martyr protesters would yell as another dead man came by. Those who were lucky enough to escape the site sought treatment at a nearby mosque turned hospital. Some tried to take off their shoes at the doors in accordance with religious customs.

“This no time to take off shoes!” the imam yelled as blood soiled the mosque carpets.

Every few minutes a man would be carried in, the women would scream and there were quiet murmurs of what the day’s events meant for Egypt’s future.

“We can no longer be peaceful,” a Morsi supporter said as he carried an injured friend into the morgue.

[View the story "At least 95 dead as Egyptian forces clear Morsi supporters from sit-in sites" on Storify]

By Nancy A. Youssef and Amina Ismail
McClatchy Foreign Staff