Cairo on a knife-edge as 20 killed in election clashes

The Military Council is accused of orchestrating the violence in a bid to have the poll postponed

Cairo

Two high-profile presidential candidates suspended their campaigns yesterday after an attack on anti-military protesters left at least 20 people dead ahead of Egypt's first free presidential elections later this month.

Scores of men, dressed in plain-clothes and armed with guns, knives and Molotov cocktails, ambushed protesters who had been staging a sit-in close to the Ministry of Defence in eastern Cairo yesterday.

Activists blamed the ruling Military Council, accusing Egypt's generals of orchestrating the violence in a bid to postpone the presidential poll – a move which has been suggested by top-ranking officials but which is opposed by most of the main political groups.

With the 23 May election approaching, one of the country's leading youth organisations called on thousands of followers to mount a "siege" of the heavily guarded Ministry of Defence tomorrow. But the plan could lead to more unrest after months of bloodshed and political wrangling.

Mohammed Mursi, who heads the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and independent Islamist Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, both suspended their campaigns after authorities took hours to intervene to stop the violence.

Yesterday's clashes began in the early hours of the morning, and came after a sit-in initially launched days ago by disgruntled ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims.

Many of the demonstrators had descended on the Abbaseya district to protest over the disqualification of their favoured presidential candidate, Abu Ismail, but they were later joined by other activists, including "ultras" from Cairo's top two football clubs.

Activists said that at around 2am dozens of men armed with sticks and guns began rushing towards the protesters from two different directions.

"They came running at us from near the metro station," said Bahaa Ragab, a 23-year-old university graduate told The Independent yesterday. "I saw thugs carrying pistols. I'm so angry. My friends have died today."

A trainee doctor said that after 2.30am he started treating a steady stream of injured protesters, many of them battered and bloodied by rocks and stones. By 4.30am he and his colleagues were receiving victims with gunshot wounds.

"I saw five people who had been killed by live rounds," said the doctor, Ahmad el-Khabiry. "One of them was shot in his left temple and the bullet came out of the other side of his head," he said, adding that another two victims had their eyes forced from their sockets by shotgun pellets.

Hospital officials said that nine of the 11 people who died received gunshot wounds to the head. Two others were stabbed to death. According to state television, the assailants were local people from the Abbaseya district who had grown sick of the continued demonstrations, though protesters and politicians insisted they were regime thugs.

According to the Reuters news agency there were also unconfirmed reports that some Salafis had brought guns to the protest for protection.

But Dr Amr Darrag, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, blamed the ruling generals, telling The Independent that the attacks were a "replica" of previous incidents which activists have pinned on the regime.

Yesterday's violence was the latest in a string of clashes which have blighted Egypt's transitional period and prolonged the continuing stalemate over the country's new constitution.

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