Egyptian troops and military police staged a fierce assault on protesters in Tahrir Square yesterday, leaving at least 10 people dead and hardening fears that the military council could prove as hard to dislodge as Hosni Mubarak. It was the worst violence seen in the Egyptian capital since the height of the uprising in February.
The crowds that had gathered to express their anger at the military government's reluctance to cede power stampeded when the army stormed the square. There were reports that soldiers had used tear gas on a makeshift hospital. But last night returning protesters vowed they would not be forced to leave.
In a confrontation that carried dark echoes of the last days of the Mubarak regime and provoked claims of state brutality, military police stormed into the iconic plaza, firing tear gas and rubber bullets, scattering demonstrators.
Some officers rounded on isolated civilians, beating some of them with batons. Others torched the tents that had been erected by people planning a prolonged sit-in to protest against the country’s military rulers.
The government denied live rounds were used against protesters. But Dr Ahmad Atif, working in a makeshift field hospital in a mosque just off Tahrir Square, said he had seen the bodies of four men killed by live fire, while nearby buildings appeared scarred by new bullet holes and shots were ricocheting off the walls.
The scene in the hospital was of absolute chaos, with hundreds of patients – some of them young boys – being rushed in on stretchers suffering from gunshot wounds. Many people have been blinded by rubber pellets. Dr Haytham Magdy said that one man had been killed after his head was run over by a military car.
"I thought I was going to die," Sahar Kamal, an IT company employee, said. "I thought I was finished."
In stark contrast to these scenes, the cabinet issued a statement thanking the police for showing "self-restraint in dealing with the events".
The operation came after two days of the worst violence to have hit Egypt since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in February. With only a week to go until the first round of parliamentary elections, it casts a dark shadow over the supposed centrepiece of Egypt's transition to democracy.
When the troops began to move into the square, cries of "Gesh, Gesh, Gesh" (Army, Army, Army) quickly spread through the crowd, triggering a stampede. Doormen in buildings on side streets forced their doors shut as panicked protesters desperately tried to escape the throng. When most of the square had been cleared, armoured vehicles drove in to fire tear gas at the defiant few who remained.
The Independent witnessed a group of unarmed male protesters cornered by troops and beaten with batons and riot shields; when the troops moved away, six men lay prone on the roadside.
After two other protesters attempted unsuccessfully to revive another man, a military policeman dragged him to the same heap. Troops quickly removed the unconscious men, making it impossible to confirm whether they were alive. But Ghada Shabender, of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, who spent time in the square's makeshift field hospital, said her group had confirmed at least five deaths.
She said doctors had reported an attack on the hospital. "They said it was stormed by the military police who threw in a tear gas canister," she said. There were multiple other reports of abuses. Pasant, a 24-year-old estate agent, said she had been groped by a soldier as she lay on the ground.