Jets swoop over Egypt protesters

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A fighter plane flies low over Tahrir Square in Cairo as mass protests continue against the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak (AP)

Fighter jets swooped low over Cairo in what appeared to be an attempt by the military to show its control of a city beset by looting, armed robbery and anti-government protests.

Minutes before the start of Sunday’s evening curfew, at least two jets appeared and made multiple passes over the city centre, including a central square where thousands of protesters were calling for the departure of President Hosni Mubarak.

Police could be seen returning to some streets nearly two days after virtually disappearing, creating a security vacuum only partially filled by the presence of army troops backed by tanks at key sites around the city.

After days of escalating chaos, gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn on Sunday, helping to free hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates. Gangs of young men with guns and large sticks smashed cars and robbed people in Cairo.

Banks were closed on orders from Egypt’s Central Bank, and the stock market was shut on what is normally the first day of the trading week. Markets across the Middle East dropped due to fears about the damage the instability could do to the economy of Egypt and the wider region.

An unprecedented internet cut-off remained in place after the country’s four primary internet providers stopped moving data in and out of the country in an apparent move by authorities to disrupt the organisation of demonstrations blaming Mr Mubarak’s regime for poverty, unemployment, widespread corruption and police brutality.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington expects that the protests in Egypt will lead to free and fair elections as part of an “orderly” transition to “real democracy”. “I want the Egyptian people to have a chance to chart a new future,” she said. “It’s not a question of who retains power… It’s how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people.”

Mr Mubarak, 82, perpetuated the overriding role of military men in Egyptian politics by naming his intelligence chief, former army general Omar Suleiman, to the new role of vice-president on Saturday.

On Sunday, state TV showed images of Mr Mubarak during what it said was a visit to the country’s military command centre. The president looked sombre and fatigued in his first public appearance since he addressed the nation on Friday to promise reform and announce the dismissal of his cabinet.

The official death toll from five days of chaos now stands at 74, with thousands more injured.

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