Mubarak supporters attack activists

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Anti-government protesters throw stones during clashes in Cairo (AP)

Menacing gangs backing President Hosni Mubarak attacked journalists and human rights activists as Egypt’s crisis took an ugly turn.

Government opponents pushed supporters out of Cairo’s main square in a second day of battles and organisers called for protesters trying to topple the regime to fill every square in the capital today.

The violence that had been concentrated in Tahrir spread around the city of 18 million, with a new wave of arson and looting. At least eight people have been killed and about 900 injured in the two days of fighting around Tahrir.

Soldiers, mainly protecting government buildings and important institutions, remained passive as they have since replacing police on the streets almost a week ago. Few uniformed police have been seen around the city in that time, and protesters claim some stripped off their uniforms and mixed with the gangs of marauding thugs.

Pro-government mobs beat foreign journalists with sticks and fists yesterday. The Committee to Protect Journalists said 24 reporters were detained in 24 hours, including representatives of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Twenty-one journalists were assaulted, including two with Fox News.

One Greek journalist was stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver and a photographer was punched in the face and his equipment smashed. Arabic news network Al-Arabiya pleaded for the army to protect its offices and journalists and Al-Jazeera said four of its correspondents were attacked. The BBC’s foreign editor said security forces had seized the network’s equipment in a hotel to stop it broadcasting.

Human rights activists were also targeted. Military police stormed the offices of an Egyptian rights group as activists were meeting and arrested at least 30, including two from London-based Amnesty International, Amnesty spokesman Tom Mackey said. New York-based Human Rights Watch said one of its activists was also among those arrested.

The crisis that began on January 25 when protesters launched the biggest challenge to Mr Mubarak’s 30-year rule has grown perilous. The day after Mr Mubarak went on television late on Tuesday and refused to step down, thousands of his supporters attacked anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, where they had held a peaceful vigil for days.

Mubarak supporters started fierce battles with firebombs, machetes and chunks of pavement that lasted throughout the night and all day yesterday.

After nightfall, the fighting died down with protesters’ hold on the square and nearby streets unbroken. Nearly 10,000 remained, some dancing and singing in victory as others – battered and bandaged – lay down exhausted to sleep or drank tea in the centre of the rubble-strewn roundabout. Throughout the day, they gained in numbers and got supplies of food and medicine.

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