President makes final attempt to calm crowds

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Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak last night defied international calls to accelerate his departure as his regime launched its most concerted political effort yet to win public support for a continuation of his 30-year rule.

The country's Vice-President Omar Suleiman announced that he had invited the outlawed opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood for talks, while going out of his way to blame foreigners and their governments for the continued turmoil in the country.

On the eve of a big demonstration the protesters planned for today and have called his "departure day", Mr Mubarak told ABC News that he was ready to leave, but added: "If I resign today there will be chaos. I am fed up... I want to go."

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq had earlier apologised for the bloody pitched battles which erupted on Wednesday. The Prime Minister acknowledged that the attack "seemed to have been organised" but said it would not be clear by whom until an investigation had been completed. Mr Suleiman claimed the attacks on the anti-Mubarak demonstrators were the result of a "plot".

Mr Mubarak, meanwhile, told ABC News that he was "very unhappy" about Wednesday's violence and blamed the Muslim Brotherhood. "I do not want to see Egyptians fighting each other," he said.

There was further bloodshed in clashes yesterday, this time after anti-Mubarak protesters pushed out of the square in an effort to clear surrounding streets of pro-Mubarak demonstrators. A medic at a makeshift hospital set up to treat the injured said the death toll for the past 24 hours had risen to 10.

The United States and European governments condemned what they called a "concerted campaign to intimidate" foreign journalists in Egypt after reported attacks by Mr Mubarak's supporters on reporters and some arrests by the authorities, including one of a BBC journalist who was detained for about three hours.

Mr Suleiman, Egypt's longtime intelligence chief, insisted that demands for reform had been met and that Mr Mubarak's son, Gamal, would not stand for the presidency. Mr Suleiman also said that the economy was in dire straits, with state revenues down by one-third and losses from a lack of tourism reaching $1bn (£62m).

He said he had invited the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the most organised opposition group, to join a national "dialogue" on political reform and the rules for the scheduled presidential election, which he promised would take place in "August or September, no later than that".

Mr Suleiman said the Brotherhood was "hesitant" about accepting the invitation, which would have been unthinkable before the protests. He thanked the youth of Egypt for their reform demands, but there was also a tinge of defiance in his lengthy television interview, the first since he was appointed.

The US and leading European governments have demanded an immediate start to the transition of power, but Mr Suleiman defended the timetable of six months or more, during which Mr Mubarak would remain as President. He said the period was necessary for electoral and other reforms Mr Mubarak had promised.

Without naming specific countries, he said interference in the internal affairs of Egypt by foreign governments was "unacceptable".

The British Government's first evacuation flight from Egypt arrived last night at Gatwick airport, carrying 161 passengers, mainly UK citizens and their families.