CAIRO (Reuters) - Soldiers beat demonstrators with batons in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Saturday in a second day of clashes that have killed 10 people and wounded hundreds, marring the first free election most Egyptians can remember.
Protesters fled into side streets to escape the troops in riot gear, who grabbed people and battered them repeatedly even after they had been beaten to the ground, a Reuters journalist said. Shots were fired in the air.
Soldiers pulled down protester tents and set them on fire, local television footage showed.
In Reuters footage, one soldier in a line of charging troops drew a pistol and fired a shot at retreating protesters. It was not clear whether he was using blanks or live ammunition.
Health Minister Fouad el-Nawawy told Egyptian television 10 people were killed and 441 injured. Most those appeared to have died on Friday or in the early hours of Saturday. State media said at least 200 people were taken to hospital.
The army-appointed prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, 78, said 30 security guards outside parliament had been hurt and 18 people had gunshot wounds.
Ten months after a popular revolt toppled President Hosni Mubarak, tensions are running high. The army generals who replaced him have angered some Egyptians by seeming reluctant to give up power. Others back the military as a force for badly needed stability during a difficult transition to democracy.
The army assault on Saturday followed skirmishes between protesters and troops during which a fire destroyed archives, some more than 200 years old, in a building next to Tahrir.
An army official said troops targeted thugs, not protesters, after shots were fired at soldiers and petrol bombs set the archive building ablaze, the state news agency MENA reported.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement it was concerned by the violent incidents at Tahrir and condemned the “excessive use of force” against protesters.
The bloodshed follows unrest in which 42 people were killed in the week before November 28, the start of a phased parliamentary poll in which Islamist parties repressed during the 30-year Mubarak era have emerged as the strong front-runners.
Voting in the second round of the drawn-out election process, part of a promised transition from army to civilian rule by July, passed off peacefully on Wednesday and Thursday. The last run-off vote for the lower house will take place on January 11.
Friday’s clashes pitted thousands of demonstrators against soldiers and plainclothes men who were seen at one point hurling rocks from the roof of a parliament building.
Army vehicles and soldiers were deployed at roads leading into Tahrir Square, the hub of the anti-Mubarak uprising, on Saturday evening. Some protesters and troops threw rocks at each other. Protesters also lobbed petrol bombs at army lines.
Prime minister Ganzouri blamed the violence on youths among the protesters. “What is happening in the streets today is not a revolution, rather it is an attack on the revolution,” he said.
Tahrir protesters and some other Egyptians are infuriated by the army’s perceived reluctance to quit power, focusing their wrath on Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the army council, who was Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades.
“This is happening because Tantawi is dirty and he is ruling the country the same way Hosni ruled it,” said a taxi driver.
But other Egyptians, desperate for order, voiced frustration about the unrest that has battered the economy.
“We can’t work, we can’t live, and because of what? Because of some thugs who have taken control of the square and destroyed our lives. Those are no revolutionaries,” said Mohamed Abdel Halim, a 21-year-old who runs a store near Tahrir.
State media gave conflicting accounts of what sparked the violence. They quoted some people as saying a man went into the parliament compound to retrieve a mis-kicked football, but was harassed and beaten by police and guards. Others said the man had prompted scuffles by trying to set up camp in the compound.
Among the dead was Emad Effat, a senior official of Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, a religious authority that issues Islamic fatwas (edicts). His wife, Nashwa Abdel-Fattah, told Reuters Effat died from a gunshot wound. At his funeral on Saturday, hundreds of mourners chanted “Down with military rule.”
A new civilian advisory council set up to offer policy guidance to the generals said it would suspend its meetings until the violence stopped. It called for prosecution of those responsible and asked the army to release all those detained in the unrest. One council member announced he was quitting.
Islamist and liberal politicians decried the army’s tactics.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose party list is leading the election, said in a statement the military must make “a clear and quick apology for the crime that has been committed.”
In a statement carried by the state news agency, the army council “expressed its regret about events” on Friday, but it stopped short of an apology.
Pro-democracy activists have accused the army of trying to clear a sit-in outside the cabinet office that a small number of protesters has maintained since the November violence.
The army council is in charge until a presidential election in June, but parliament will have a popular mandate that the military will find hard to ignore as it oversees the transition.
Additional reporting by Ashraf Fahim, Marwa Awad and Dina Zayed; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Trevelyan