Top witness undermines Mubarak case

A police commander who agreed to give evidence backing claims that Egypt's former government ordered protesters to be shot went back on his word today.

Prosecutors at the trial of ex-president Hosni Mubarak had expected their first witness General Hussein Moussa to detail how he was told to open fire on crowds in Cairo.

But the general told the hearing police were ordered to use just tear gas and rubber bullets and resorted to live ammunition only to protect police stations.

It was a dramatic and confusing start to the prosecution's case and one of the lawyers representing victims' families accused the general of lying.

"It was clear that the defendants have put pressure on him and that he changed his testimony," Mohammed Damaty said.

Egypt's state television said that General Moussa's evidence contradicted his earlier affidavits to the prosecutor general.

Three other police officials are due to give evidence. But General Moussa's evidence could be damaging to the prosecution's case.

Outside the Police Academy compound where the trial is being held, hundreds of relatives of protesters who were killed in the uprising clashed with police and tried to force their way in, frustrated at being prohibited from attending the trial.

Live TV broadcasts of the landmark trial have been halted by the judge, angering many Egyptians who wanted to witness the prosecution of the man who ruled their country for nearly 30 years and was widely resented for a regime plagued by corruption, police abuse and a ruling-party monopoly on power.

Inside the courtroom, pro- and anti-Mubarak lawyers broke into fist-fights after a loyalist in the audience raised a picture of the ousted president. One lawyer took off his shoes and beat another with them, and other scuffled and shouted insults, prompting the judge to adjourn briefly.

As he has in previous sessions, the 83-year-old Mubarak, who is ill with cancer, lay in a hospital bed in the defendants' cage along with his co-defendants, including his two sons.

Mubarak is charged with corruption and with complicity in the killings of protesters. His sons, Gamal and Alaa, also face corruption charges.

Prosecutors claim that Mubarak and his highest ranking security chief el-Adly were ultimately responsible for orders to use lethal force which saw more than 800 peaceful protesters killed.

General Moussa said live ammunition was used only against protesters who planned to attack the Cairo security headquarters, police stations and prisons. In Tahrir Square, the centre of the uprising where witnesses and prosecutors say police snipers shot at protesters, he said security forces used only water cannons and rubber bullets.

Outside the academy compound on the outskirts of Cairo, hundreds of victims' families and protesters pushed and shoved in an attempt to break through the main gates and enter the court building. Black-clad anti-riot police swung batons and briefly clashed with the protesters, who hurled stones at the security forces.