Prime Minister David Cameron has urged the Egyptian government to accelerate the process of political change as violence erupted in the streets of Cairo.
In the first significant scenes of violence since demonstrations began more than a week ago, supporters of beleaguered president Hosni Mubarak attacked protesters in Tahrir Square.
As the running battles unfolded, Mr Cameron condemned the violence and warned that it would be “utterly unacceptable” if it was state-sponsored. Speaking alongside UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon after talks in 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister said the clashes underlined the need for speedy political reforms.
Mr Mubarak stoked anger amongst Egyptian protesters on Tuesday night by promising to step down but not until this September’s elections. His critics want him to quit immediately.
The Prime Minister said: “These are despicable scenes we are seeing and they should not be repeated. They underline the need for political reform and frankly for that political reform to be accelerated and to happen quickly. That change needs to start happening now and the violence needs to stop.”
In scenes of chaos in Cairo, the two sides pelted each other with stones and other weapons. Pro-government attackers on horseback and camels were dragged off the animals and beaten.
Speaking outside Number 10, Mr Cameron said: “If it turns out that the regime in any way has been sponsoring or tolerating this violence, that would be completely and utterly unacceptable.” Mr Ban added: “I once again urge restraint to all sides. Any attack against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable and I very strongly condemn it.”
A military spokesman appeared on Egyptian state TV on Wednesday asking protesters to disperse, suggesting that the Army’s tolerance for the demonstrations – which on Tuesday saw an estimated 250,000 people cram into Tahrir Square – may be coming to an end.
About 10,000 opponents of the regime returned to protest, renewing demands for Mr Mubarak’s immediate removal and chaotic scenes developed as they clashed with pro-Mubarak protesters, who tore down placards and posters and fought with demonstrators. Some soldiers fired in the air in an attempt to control the crowd.
Mr Ban said the UN had been warning for a decade of the need for change in the Arab world, he said, and he offered the UN’s assistance in smoothing the way for peaceful reform.